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Title: The Fortune-Telling House Author: Aidan de Brune * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1700961h.html Language: English Date first posted: Sept 2017 Most recent update: June 2023 This eBook was produced by Terry Walker, Colin Choat and Roy Glashan and proofread by Gordon Hobley. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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This text was created from the serial version of "The Fortune-Telling House" published in The Kyogle Examiner. Illegible passages in the PDF images files of this newspaper were restored from the Queensland Times version.
THIS book is a product of a collaborative effort undertaken by Project Gutenberg Australia, Roy Glashan's Library and the bibliophile Terry Walker to collect, edit and publish the works of Aidan de Brune, a colourful and prolific Australian writer whose opus is well worth saving from oblivion.
THERE was a slackening of the speed of the motor-cycle. Sam Laske said "damn" and pressed the accelerator. The speed of the machine did not increase; it continued to slacken. Sam looked at the top of the hill before him, and tried to do comparative sums in terms of yards and probable remains of petrol in the tank. The machine continued to lose speed, but perhaps under the urge of the owner's fervid objurgations, faltered up to the crest of the hill, then serenely died—somewhat in the manner of a good politician (if there is such a thing) taking a final farewell of the world he had so well helped to misgovern.
When a motor-cycle "dies" on its rider, that rider, perforce, has to take the supports Nature has so generously provided. Sam dismounted and kicked the cycle struts into place; then stared about him. Before him stretched an almost straight road ending at a distance of probably three miles in a small cluster of houses.
"That's Barralong," said Sam, addressing his motor-cycle and the scenery in general. "Now, I wonder! Is there a pump there?" The cycle did not reply; its headlamp, cock-eyed as must be the headlamp of any motor-cycle owned by a newspaper-man, stared straight, or nearly so, ahead. "Damn!" said Sam again. He turned and looked back on the road he had recently passed. He visualised his late route, and shook his head.
There were several steep hills on the stretch of road back to Southbury and although he knew of several very satisfactory petrol pumps in that city, he did not feel inclined to push the heavy Emperor motor-cycle up even the least of those hills.
In his thirty three years on the planet named Earth, Sam had never claimed he was worth looking at. He was short, somewhat stumpy in build and wore a freckled sandy complexion on an almost round face, decorated mainly by snub-cum-tip-tilted nose, blue eyes and a rather absurd round mouth. His hair was ginger in colour, kinky and with the exasperating habit of standing straight up towards the heavens ten minutes after hard labour and much water had forced it to a presumably recumbent permanent position.
While motoring, and Sam motored whenever possible, the aforesaid hair became grey, owing to liberal applications of road dust, supplied gratis by the various Roads Boards of the State, who carefully refrained from watering good, soft roads.
Sam never wore a hat. He claimed that hats produced baldness and that in the interests of Sydney Beautiful he dared not cramp his appearance to that extent. An editor, who daringly took Sam to task for his absolute disregard of the dictates of civilised attire was seriously informed that journalist salaries did not run to head gear, when there were people in the city who had the unfeeling habit of selecting the best hat on the restaurant hat-rack, when they had finished their fifteen-penny meal. While he made this announcement Sam stared so hard at the hat rack in the corner on which hung one of Stetson's latest, that the editor in question blushed, rather becomingly.
"Ten miles to Southbury—and at least ten hills! Three miles to Barralong—and possibly that's a one-horse township without a petrol pump." observed Sam, and a watching crow in the solitary tree that decorated that part of the landscape, said "Caw," loudly.
Sam looked up, and nodded.
"I agree, old chap," he added. "It's the three in favour, 'specially as they're downhill. Yes, the three has it!"
Kicking up the struts, Sam pushed the cycle over the crest of the hill and slid into the saddle. Using the last drop of petrol in the tank to gather motion power, he started down the hill. His prayer at the moment was that no wandering country yokel with horse and cart would turn suddenly, on to the main road, for that would necessitate braking, and he had no brake for the language that would result if he had to push the heavy machine any part of the distance to the township.
Sam Laske had left Southbury that mid-day after a very unsatisfactory interview with the proprietor of that city's morning daily newspaper. The previous day Sam had left Sydney for Southbury. The reason for the journey of four hundred miles, twice covered, being that he had acquired a "hunch" that the Sydney Daily Post would probably and shortly dispense with his valuable services.
Sam had no great passion for work, but he had a supreme dislike of being without work. A friend informed him that he had heard Southbury's "Valuator" would shortly require a senior reporter. Sam now badly wanted to meet that "friend" and give expression to certain observations anent people who "knew" what had occurred to him during the past few hours.
No wandering boys in charge of cumbersome wagons drawn by long and unmanageable teams appeared on the road between the hilltop and Barralong. Abreast the first house of the township, Sam optimistically switched on the gas and watched for signs of a garage. He saw only an hotel, and realised the truth of the saying that man is the more important animal of creation.
He strutted the machine and entered the half-open bar door. The bar-room was not large, about the size of an ordinary living room of a medium-sized house. Across one end of the room stood a bar-counter, decorated with designs from the bottoms of many wet pots and glasses. Beyond the counter were several shelves, backed by fly-blown mirrors. On the shelves were bottles, labelled with known and unknown signs, tempting to the human palate. Midway among the shelves was a door. There were two more doors in the public portion of the room, beside the one by which Sam had entered. The doors appeared to lead to the interior of the house. Indifferently spaced on the walls of the bar-room were sporting prints of a bygone era, interspersed by a modern note obtained by illustrations torn from Sydney's illustrated journals, held to the faded wall-paper by rusty pins.
There were no signs of humanity within the building. Sam knocked sharply on the counter with a florin, knocked again—and said things. He went to the door through which he had entered the hotel and gazed out on a sun-drenched street. There was no one in sight. He went to one of the doors he presumed led to the interior of the house and gazed out on a deserted passage.
Despairingly, he returned to the counter and rapped again with his florin. Then—
The door behind the counter opened a bare nine inches and a towelled head pushed through the opening.
"Wantin' anything," asked the face beneath the head.
"Pot of bitter," said Sam.
The head disappeared, leaving Sam in doubt whether it was owned by male or female body; if the latter, then it had never known a permanent wave. A voice lifted in wailing complaint at the rear of the house, echoing his words: "Pint o' bitter!"
Sam waited, idly spinning the two-shilling piece on the bar counter. He waited—and his thirst grew rampant. Almost he had decided that he would have to increase his order to a quart, when the door opened and a man stepped into the space between shelving and bar.
"Pint of bitter," said the man, and seized the handle of a beer-pump, with the other hand groping for the necessary utensil. Sam nodded. He stared at the man, and the man was well worth staring at.
Tall, an inch or more over six feet, he was strongly, yet finely proportioned; even the rough clothing he wore could not conceal the muscular beauty of his long, lean body. His face was strong, thin and lean. The forehead was unlined and broad; rather heavy eyebrows, well-opened light-blue eyes in which lurked humour; his nose was long, straight and firm. He wore no moustache to hide well-shaped lips, and was carefully shaved. The lips were humorous, to match his eyes, and displayed eloquently a firm, shapely chin. Sam's eyes went to the hands. They were long-fingered and muscular, almost aristocratic in design.
Sam accepted the pot of beer set on the counter before him with gratitude, and immediately concealed his face—or most of it, in the sweet-smelling pot.
"Thanks," he said, after a decent interval, well employed; and the words were not conventionally spoken.
"Cycling?" asked the hotel-keeper. Sam nodded. He waited until he withdrew his lips from the edge of the tankard before replying. "Yes. Garage in this township?"
"No," said the man.
"No petrol pump?" asked Sam.
"No," repeated the host of the hotel. He appeared to be a man of a few words.
"Damn!" said the journalist, with fervour. The word was a favourite, on occasions. It expressed so much with so little exertion.
"No gas?" questioned the hotel-keeper, after a pause.
Sam shook his head. Here was not an occasion for words. No self-respecting hotel-keeper would ask such a question. Journalists do not make a habit of pulling up in one horse townships unless requiring petrol.
"Where's the next town?" he asked, when another application to the tankard had caused the anticipated drought.
"Waitamine," instructed the hotel-man. "Ten miles."
"And thirteen miles back to Southbury!" The newspaper-man groaned. "What the—"
Then a thought came: "What's your name?" he asked.
"It's over the door." The man smiled unexpectedly. Sam stared at the hotel-keeper a moment, then pushed his pot across the counter. "Fill that up and collect your own poison." He turned from the bar and sauntering out on to the road, looked up at the inscription over the door.
"Good lor'," he ejaculated, then went back to the bar and lifted the refilled pot, noting with satisfaction that the host had one of a similar nature before him. The man who drinks his own beer knows that it is good! He nodded at the pot in the man's hand. "You deserve that—and a lot more of 'em!"
The hotel-keeper nodded and lifted the tankard to his lips.
"The police insist on it," he said, and his lips curved humorously as he spoke. "Rather funny, over a country pub, isn't it?"
"I'll say it is!" Sam stared at the man. "So you're Sir Archibald Witherton Skirlington," he observed. "I think I've heard of you."
"Thanks." Skirlington grinned wryly. "You're a newspaper-man, aren't you?"
"You people made enough fuss over that." He nodded at the door.
"Not us." Sam shook his head. "You're flattering yourself."
"They had a couple of columns in the Valuator when I first took over this place," Skirlington explained. "Each year since, at licensing time, there's the better part of a column. Last time the local man wanted an interview on how it felt for a real baronet to handle a beer-pump."
"He would!" Sam was superior, and emphatic. "That's the bumpkin idea of news. Sorry, old man, can't you scrap it?
"Not while I keep a pub."
"Well, I'd like you better if you kept a petrol pump." Sam scratched his ginger-grey thatch. "Now, what the devil am I to do?"
"Get it from Southbury," suggested Skirlington. "A train comes in at Barralong from there about five in the morning."
"Blackmail?" asked Sam. "No petrol pump in the town by order of our local baronet-host, so that stranded motorists have to stay the night while they import gas!"
"Not so good!" Skirlington's good-looking features twisted in a broad grin. "We're too close to Southbury and Waitamine. Most cars speed through. They even get their drinks at the big places, so don't look out for my sign."
"Hard luck!" Sam pondered a moment. "How do I communicate with the garage at Southbury?"
"'Phone." The hotel-man pointed to an instrument in a corner of the room. "You pay me for the gas and I 'phone the order. They trust me!"
"That's broke it!" Sam stared in-mock amazement. "Trust a baronet-hotel keeper. Sure, they've got nerve down this way. All right!" He tossed a note on the counter. "Take for the late drinks, a new set-up, and the gas out of that."
Skirlington made change, then went to the telephone. For some moments he spoke into the instrument, then turned to the journalist.
"All right. The gas will be here."
He surveyed the dirty overalls in which the journalist was dressed, the dusty hair and grime-streaked face. "You could do with a clean-up."
"I could." Sam expressed sincere agreement. "Neither Southbury nor Waitamine consider it necessary to water their roads."
"They don't consider it necessary to mend their roads until they are impassable, though they keep quite a number of men on the dole." The hotel-keeper spoke almost bitterly, as the Australian tax and rate payer has long learned to express himself. "Got any kit?"
"The swag's on the cycle." Sam turned to the road-door. "What shall I do with Matilda's little boy?"
"Matilda's little boy?" queried Skirlington blankly.
"Sure! He carries Matilda," explained the journalist.
Skirlington laughed. "There's a shed at the back." He followed Sam to the road-door and pointed down to the left. "Go through that gate and you will see it before you. I'll meet you in the yard."
Three-quarters of an hour later Sam Laske descended from his bedroom, changed, clean and refreshed. He looked in at the bar-room, but there was no one there, so he wandered out on the road. There are few less inspiring places, even for an Australian poet, than an Australian country township on a hot afternoon. So little human and mechanical noises stir the somnolent air that the humming of a casual-passing bee sounds like the roar of a low-hovering aeroplane. Even radio-torturers succumb to the lethargic influences, for Mrs. "Farmer" has not acquired yet the belief of her suburban sister, that housework is distinctly helped by the strains of an old-time popular song, or the wailings of an American crooner, distributed over the air from a grinding gramophone record. Barralong in no way differs from the hundreds of townships decorating the vast Australian countryside, except, perhaps, that it is, if anything, less inspiring than its fellows.
Sam Laske stood in the small shade of the doorway and gazed disconsolately on the bleak scene. He mentally counted the hours that lay before him, before the longed-for petrol was landed from the early-morning train, and groaned. Before him in the western distance rose a slight ridge of land, bits of roofs and chimney of a farmhouse on the opposite slope, showing on the ridge. On the slope, facing the hotel were farmlands, decorated with the monotonous brown of growing wheat. There was not a single tree in that direction. Before the hotel ran the main road, beyond the road was a patch of bare earth, and beyond that another, narrower road, bordered on the far side by the farm lands fence. The bare patch of land between the two roads, apparently the "village-green", was triangular in shape, its apex to the south, where the by-road met the main road. At the base of the triangle, some hundred yards to the north of the hotel, a by-road joined the main to the by-road.
The view to the south was even less inspiring. The ridge of land on which showed the top of farm-buildings ran southwards, curving to meet the main road some three miles to the south. That formed the hill down which Sam had coasted, and at the summit of the hill stood one solitary tree. The journalist turned to the north. There the view was cut abruptly, some half-mile away, by heavy bushland, extending far to the west and east. Sam walked out on to the road and gazed eastwards. In that direction he saw only farmlands, bare of all but the ubiquitous wheat. Close by the hotel stood three houses. One was evidently a general store, made out of a converted private house and the other—well Sam had three tries for a guess, and decided he had guessed wrong each time. He was too lazy to go the few yards down the road on an exploration. He sighed. Why, such a place would stunt even the imagination of a detective-story writer.
"Seen for three hundred and sixty-four days a year it is rather monotonous," observed a voice behind, him.
"Hullo, Bart."* Sam turned with relief. "And what of the three hundred and sixty-fifth day?"
[* "Bart." = abbreviation of "Baronet"]
"That is spent in Southbury, obtaining renewal of my license and dodging the professional activities of the local reporter."
"You poor devil!" Sam looked at the man in saddened wonder. "Do you mean to tell me you exist here all the year round?"
"Just about. Man must have his refreshment."
"No." A pause, then: "Say, are you interviewing me."
"The gods of the countryside forbid!" Sam grinned. "I'll acknowledge to curiosity, but not at present on paper. In fact, as things are, it looks as if I shall be needing a paper to be curious in."
"Not yet; but so close to it that you wouldn't notice that it stares a newspaper-man in the face. Times of depression, you know, and journalists—"
"Are sacrificed to make a newspaper holiday," interjected the hotel-man.
A voice called from the rear of the building. Skirlington shouted an answer, turned, and beckoned to the newspaper-man.
"When you're tired of the beauties of nature, as represented in Barralong," he observed, halting before a door in the passage of the house, "you may find something here to interest you."
He pushed open the door and motioned Sam to enter the room. The journalist stared. He was gazing on a comfortably furnished room, crowded with books. A deep Morris chair set in a window-nook, caught his attention, looking particularly inviting.
"Lord!" he exclaimed, turning to the hotel-man. "No wonder you don't protest more forcibly against the three hundred and sixty-four days. He stepped forward, turned and looked at the man behind him.
"Say Bart., this isn't the hotel public room?"
Skirlington smiled, almost sadly. "No, I don't encourage the native here; but somehow, you're different—" He hesitated, and turned to the door. "If you're not too tired we'll have a yarn tonight, after closing. It's a long time since anyone has stayed in the hotel who looked on a book other than a strange curiosity."
"Sorry, I have to go." Skirlington interrupted. "Turn the key in the lock when you come out, please."
The door closed gently, leaving Sam staring about him. For a time he wandered along the line of shelving, studying the titles of the books, renewing old friendships, making new acquaintances. At length, he made a selection and went to the Morris chair. For some time he read, then dropped the book to his knees, sighed, luxuriously, and leaned back idly, allowing the physical and mental comfort of the room to gradually take possession of his senses.
Baronet and hotel-keeper, Archibald Skirlington knew how to make himself comfortable!
"Had a good sleep?"
Skirlington's voice roused the newspaper-man from the slumbers which had succeeded to meditation. He jerked upright in his chair and the book on his knees slid to the floor. He bent and retrieved it, dusting the cover and flicking the leaves. He looked at the man standing in the doorway, and laughed.
"So I did sleep." Sam yawned. "Lord, I think anyone would sleep in this practical representation of Sleepy Hollow. I don't think I could write a ten-line par. on a garden-made revolution against a Lang Government."
Skirlington grinned. He took the book from Sam's hands and put it in its place on the shelves.
"Tea's ready," he announced. "You won't mind having it with me, I hope. You see, we haven't a dining-room here, nor set meals, except when anyone, like you, gets held up here by road trouble."
"Of course not. I'm bored stiff with my own society, always."
Sam followed his guide and host through a connecting door into another room of the suite.
"Say, you make yourself comfortable here."
"Another of my private rooms." Skirlington laughed gently. "There are three of them. On the other side of the book-room is my bedroom. I'm afraid I'm rather a sybarite."
"Except that sybarites don't bring casual visitors into rooms like these," commented Sam, accepting the seat at the table Skirlington indicated.
"Well, not exactly—but I have made an exception for you."
The baronet went to a small sideboard, picking up carving knife, and fork. "You won't mind me acting as butler, carver and waiter, will you? My assistants here are—well—"
"Just so." The newspaper-man nodded. "Your assistants are more used to the casual farm-hand passer-by dining in the kitchen."
Sam enjoyed the dinner that Skirlington had named tea. He found the food excellent and beautifully cooked, suspecting his host of the culinary work. He enjoyed the bottle of excellent claret, set on the table and, at the end of the meal, he accepted the cigar from a box pushed across the table to him, with a belief that his lines could not have fallen in better place.
"And now?" he questioned curiously, at length.
"The bar." Skirlington answered. "I have to take that myself. I'll be there until eight, or even later, maybe. We don't worry about legal closing hours in places like these. Even the patrolling 'John' likes his pint when he reaches Barralong, whatever the hour may be, and he doesn't mind company with it. Coming?"
"May as well." Sam got up from the table stiffly. "It'll be experience and I may pick up a bit of talk I can use."
"You'll be lucky."
Skirlington led from the room. Crossing the passage, he opened a door.
"Come through this way."
Entering the room, Sam found himself in a tiny bar-parlour, an open door on his right revealing a partial view of the bar. Skirlington motioned him to follow into the bar, raised the flap of the counter, and ushered his guest to a comfortable cane-armchair beside a small table.
"I say," Sam exclaimed suddenly. "These things weren't here this afternoon."
"They weren't." The hotel-keeper agreed. "I thought you'd prefer to sit down, though, rather than stand about for a couple of hours or so. I'll have another chair brought in and if anyone interesting, like Jess Markham, drops in, I'll introduce them."
Seated in the comfortable chair, Sam watched his host prepare for the evening trade. Time passed and no one came into the bar. In the open the sun dipped beyond the ridge opposite the hotel, and shadows lengthened. Skirlington came from behind the bar and lit the big lamp hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the room.
"Trade slow," observed Sam.
"Always is, about this time. We don't keep city hours down here. The men have to look to their stock, and they don't come in from the fields until sundown. They then have tea—and possibly wander down here for an hour or so—"
The man turned swiftly to the door, listening intently.
"There's someone coming—and they seem to be in a hurry."
Sam turned idly in the chair so that he could see the door. Now he heard hurrying footsteps. A moment, and a man burst through the half open door into the room—a man dirty and unkempt, and suffering from intense excitement. Before him, clutched in both hands, he carried an old smoke-begrimed, dented billy, apparently containing something heavy that clinked with his footsteps. Half-running through the room he deposited his burden on the counter.
"Gimme a drink! Gimme a drink!" he mumbled huskily. "Quick, or I'll bust!" He half-crouched over the old billy, fondling it lovingly, slobbering with greed and excitement. A moment, and he looked up at Skirlington, standing well back from the bar, surveying him curiously.
"Gimme a drink!" he mumbled. "Why don't you hurry? Quick, I wanta drink—brandy—whiskey—anything—"
"Cut that out!" The hotel-keeper spoke briskly. "What's your trouble and where do you come from?"
"Gimme a drink! Quick! Quick!" The man's voice went a quick crescendo. He was actually dribbling into the old can.
"Can you pay for it?" Skirlington thrust the man's head back, peering into his face. "We don't give drinks to anyone who come in here, play-acting." He waited a moment, then thrust the man's head back harshly. "Listen! Got any money?"
"Money?" The tramp laughed shrilly. "Money! Oceans of it! All the money in the world! Look!"
With a sudden movement he knocked over the billy. From the mouth of the can rolled out a stream of yellow coins. Skirlington sprang forward quickly, snapping his hands down quickly to prevent the flow of coins from rolling from the counter to the floor. He caught at the man's wrist and snapped the can upright. For a moment the tramp resisted, then gave way to the hotel-man's superior strength. Skirlington lifted the billy and sharply upended it on the counter, as he drew it up from the contents, a pile of gold coins was revealed.
Sam had watched the scene with interest. At sight of the gold he came to the bar-counter. The pile of coins filled him with amazement.
"Here!" He caught the sundowner by the shoulder, swinging him about. "Where did you get that?"
"Where did I get it?" The swaggie stared, blear-eyed from one man confronting him to the other.
Suddenly he wrenched himself from Sam's grip and flung himself on to the pile of coins.
"They're mine! Mine, I tell you! All mine. I found them!"
For minutes there was silence in the room. Sam stared at the man crouching gloatingly over his treasure. He caught the inquiry in Skirlington's eyes, and nodded at the bottle on the shelves behind the bar. The hotel man understood. He turned and picked up a brandy bottle, tilted a liberal dose into a beer tankard and filled the pot to the top with beer. He slid the pot in front of the swaggie.
"Here, man! Hold up, and drink this."
The man seized the tankard, tilted his head back and swallowed the contents greedily, letting trickles of liquor run down from his mouth, over his bedraggled beard on to his clothing.
Suddenly he took the pot from his mouth and tossed it on to the floor, flinging himself on the piled gold. He scooped the coins into his joined hands. They more than filled the space, overflowing and rolling in all directions.
"Cut that out!" Sam spoke sharply. "Put that money back into the billy and tell us where you got it from. Quick!"
His curt tones dominated the man. "Do as I tell you!"
The man stared blankly at the journalist. Sam made to push him aside, and he resisted roughly. He scooped up the coins again, this time allowing them to fall slowly, almost one by one, into the billy.
"Now then!" Sam caught the man masterfully by the shoulder. "Where did you get that gold?"
"Out of the house—the old house up the road," the man mumbled slowly. All his attention was given to the billy of gold on which he kept his trembling hands. He shook it, tilting it to let the coins run from side to side, in musical jingle, while over his face spread a vacant, satisfied grin.
"What house?" asked Sam, impatiently. He caught the man by his shoulder and shook him vigorously. "Come on, tell me! What house?"
"The house where I slept last night up there in the bush. I dreamed and—and when I woke up I went to search—and I found it! It's mine, I tell you! It's mine!"
"—NINETY-SIX, ninety-seven, ninety-eight—" Sam Laske was bending over the bar-counter counting the gold coins from the billy and piling them up in twenties, in ordered rows.
"Lor', Bart., there's five hundred of them!"
Skirlington nodded. He glanced from the piles of gold to the swaggie, huddled in a corner of the settee. A puzzled frown came in his eyes and he walked through the gate in the counter and came round to stand before the man. The tramp looked up, bewilderedly, then mechanically stretched out his hand and took the pot of beer, heavily laced with brandy, standing on the settee beside him.
The hotel-man took it out of his hands. "You've had enough for the present," he said. "Now you hand over some information."
"Wha' for?" grumbled the man.
"We want to know what you've been doing for the past twenty-four hours, and where you got that money."
Skirlington spoke without stress in his voice, only a definite and suppressed curiosity. "Now, where did you camp last night?"
"At th' big house."
"The big house, You mean the Darrington place?"
"I sed th' 'ouse in th' bush." Sam Laske, back to the bar, his elbows on it, gazed on the swaggie with curiosity. He noted the strange change of accent. Up to that moment the man had spoken fairly good English—now he had dropped into patter of the road.
"Where?" asked the baronet.
"Abart 'arf a-mile up th' road."
"That's Darrington House."
"Is it? I dunno. It's the big grey-stone 'ouse set in th' bush—"
"What's your name?" questioned the newspaper-man suddenly. "Th' Jay Bird," The swaggie grinned.
Sam turned to the hotel-keeper. "This man is acting dumb," he stated, flatly. "You noticed that when he came in here, tensed with excitement, he could speak decently. Now he's putting up bush talk. Where's this Darrington House?"
"Up Sydney way, about half-a-mile," Skirlington said briefly, not taking his eyes from the man on the settee. "About the oldest house in this part of the country. I believe it was built in the early colonial days. Big rambling place, hidden in the bush, nearly a quarter of a mile from the main road."
"Who does it belong to?" continued the newspaper-man.
"Jess Markham." Skirlington, half-turning, pointed through the bar-door across the road. "Daresay you noticed his place, over the ridge, when you were outside this afternoon."
"Who lives at Darrington House?" asked the journalist, intent on one line of thought.
"No one. No one has lived in the house since I came here." Skirlington paused a moment. "I heard talk that, when he first came here after buying the ground hereabouts, Jess Markham moved into Darrington House. He is said to have stated that the place was too big for him, and then built the house across the fields. Got it up in pretty quick time, too."
"Why?" Sam was puzzled. "Why did he want a new house when he had a well-built stone house of respectable, size on hand? There doesn't seem to be much sense in that!"
"There's a rumour about here that the old house is haunted. I asked Jess Markham if that was the reason, for his move when he was in here one day, and though he got real wild, he didn't deny it. Just shifted the conversation—and when I showed signs of working back to the subject, drank up and moved off, quick time."
For some seconds the journalist pondered. The queer instinct that some newspaper-man have for news in the course of their work, insisted that here was a mystery awaiting exploration—that close to him was a subject that would probably make excellent copy, if properly probed. He glanced at Skirlington questioningly and the man stared back at him, his face expressionless.
"Then you believe that yarn?" There was more assertion than question in the journalist's words. When the hotel keeper did not answer, Sam continued: "You say that house stands in a belt of bushland. How big?"
"Some few hundred acres."
Sam whistled. "What sort of land?" he asked.
"All the land round here is good." There was no inflection in Skirlington's words.
"Then Jess Markham chooses to leave good lands uncleared and uncultivated. Of course there's no grazing in the bush?"
The swaggie laughed suddenly. "Grazin'," he snorted. "Why, a rabbit couldn't push his way through some of that bush."
"Good land, uncultivated and ungrazed, allowed to battle with bush." Sam spoke meditatively. He did not look directly at either of the men before him, yet he did not miss one expression, or involuntary movement they made. Long experience had taught him that where country matters are concerned the countryman erects an impenetrable barrier against the city-bred man.
"How much land does Jess Markham own?"
"Nearly two thousand acres—more or less,"
A snore from the swaggie, seated on the bench behind the hotel-keeper drew their attention. Sam passed Skirlington and shook the man roughly by the shoulder. His head rolled and he toppled forward and would have fallen to the ground had not the newspaper-man thrust him back, holding him there while Skirlington pulled his legs out, so that he reclined in the corner.
"Drunk!" Sam bent to the man, then faced the hotel-keeper. His attitude became more friendly. "You've made him drunk, Bart., 'course, you laced that beer prettily heavily, with brandy, and I suppose the poor devil had nothing to eat to-day."
"Had to." The growing hostility in Skirlington's manner was disappearing. He smiled suddenly. "Can't have an old fool about the place drooling about a pot of gold he's found. There'd be something like a riot if any of Markham's hands walked in and heard him. They'd pull Darrington House down, stone by stone, for half what's in that billy."
"Well?" queried Sam, with a sudden grin.
"I'll call the police station at Southbury," decided the hotel-man. He moved to the telephone, nodding back at the bar on which stood the billy of gold. "Get that out of the way, Laske. If anyone comes in and sees it, there'll be awkward questions asked."
Sam nodded. He went round the bar and found some brown paper and string. In this he wrapped the billy, first filling it with the rouleaus of gold he had previously made. He had just tied the last knot when Skirlington hung up the receiver and came to him.
"Sergeant Adson, of the Southbury police, is coming out at once. He's got a motor-bike and side-car, and pushes it a bit, so he won't be long."
"Got a side-car," said Sam. "You might have asked him to bring out a tin of petrol for me."
"Never thought of that." Skirlington grinned. "Besides, if he brought you out gas, I'll lose my guest—and you're the first intelligent man I've had staying in this hotel since I first came here." He paused and fingered the parcel Sam had made of the billy and gold. "Say, what shall we do with this?"
"Lock it up in your safe."
"It belongs to that fellow." Skirlington nodded, doubtfully at the sleeping man.
"Nowadays gold can only belong to a government," stated the newspaper-man sententiously. "We, the common herd are not fitted to handle so precious a thing; we're only allowed to have printed bits of paper."
Skirlington nodded. He picked up the parcel and went into the bar parlour. Sam heard the rattle of keys, and the groan of a heavy door opening. He glanced at the sundowner, sleeping heavily in a corner of the settee. On impulse, he went to the man and bent, listening to his breathing.
"Still asleep?" asked the hotel-keeper as he re-entered the bar-room.
"Fast asleep—and he'll sleep for hours." Sam turned to the hotel-keeper with a grin. "Say, Bart., that police-sergeant will have it for you when he arrives. He won't be able to get a word out of this fellow tonight."
"I had to dose him," the hotel-keeper defended. "He was half-crazy. There would have been trouble if I hadn't laced his beer with brandy. Beer alone would only have made him more talkative."
Sam nodded agreement. He spoke meditatively: "Wonder what he will do with it? Drink it all up in a week or so, more than likely, then go on the bum again, to boast of his mates on the road of the time he found the billy of gold. All the men of the bush have tales like that—of wonderful fortunes that have been in their hands—sometime. Lor', the luck's queer—always goes to those to whom it's little good. Now, Bart., if you or I had found that pot of gold—" He broke off, grinning: "Pot o' gold! And we spend our days chasing the pot o' gold at the foot of the rainbow!"
He turned sharply, walked to where the swaggie sat, caught him by the shoulders and shook him roughly. The man's head rolled grotesquely on his shoulders; he mumbled thick words of protest.
"If only we could make him talk!" Sam spoke with exasperation. He turned to Skirlington. "What did he tell us, Bart.? Found the gold in the old house! Wonder if there's any more there?"
He looked down at the sleeping man. "Damn! He's just got to talk! The 'John' will be along any minute now."
With a sharp exclamation of remembrance, Sam ran out of the bar room to the interior of the house. In a few minutes he returned, carrying a small bottle.
"Forgot all about this," he said. "Saw it in the cupboard in the bathroom when I was cleaning up. Ammonia. This will cock him up!"
He withdrew the cork and thrust the neck of the bottle under the swaggie's nose. "Hold his head up, Bart., we'll give him a full breather of it."
The roughly applied strong ammonia roused the man. He struggled, coughed and sneezed; then wrenched his head from Skirlington's detaining hands and fell back against the corner of the settee.
"That's better!" Sam thrust the bottle under the man's nose again. The Jay Bird fought out, almost sweeping the drug from the newspaper-man's hands. "Worcestershire sauce and soda-water, in a big glass, please, Bart. That'll finish him up."
For long minutes the two men worked over their "patient," half-dragging, half-carrying him out into the night-air. It was not a pleasant business and when Skirlington went back to the bar and brought out a whiskey-soda, Sam accepted it with gratitude.
"There's the sergeant!"
Skirlington stiffened, listening. On the still night air came the throbbing of a swiftly ridden motor-cycle. The two men waited, standing one on either side of the swaggie, now seated on the bench under the hotel window. Presently a bright light shone on the brow of the hill. It rolled down the long slope swiftly, then came the sounds of brakes and into the halo of light from the hotel glided a cycle, bearing the hunched figure of a man. He dismounted and came quickly to where Sam and the hotel-keeper waited.
"What's the trouble, Bart.?"
A tall, sturdily built man in sergeant's uniform stopped before the trio under the bar window. He looked at Sam and smiled. Then his eyes went to the sundowner and his lips tightened. Again he looked at the newspaper-man.
"Trouble!" he repeated. "Of course there's trouble if Mr. Sam Laske is about. What are you doing in these parts, Mr. Laske?"
The newspaper-man peered up at the police officer. A sudden knowledge came to him.
"Jack Adson!" Sam held out his hand eagerly. "Why, what are you doing here? Haven't set eyes on you since that Long Bay affair."
Sergeant Adson laughed quietly.
"They gave me a step in rank for that, and boosted me into the back-blocks." Adson shook Sam's hand warmly. "That's the penalty a good police-corporal gets for doing his work efficiently—when you newspapermen take notice and ladle on the praise too thickly—" He looked down on the sundowner. "Who's this? What's he done?" His eyes were raised to Skirlington: "You've not called me out of Southbury at this time of night for a drunk and disorderly, Bart.?"
"'The Jay Bird.'" introduced Sam. "Got over the drunk, hasn't been disorderly, but has to explain how he became inordinately rich on prohibited gold, in a poor man's country. Give me a hand, Sergeant, and we'll get him inside. And you'll want a drink, too, after swallowing your quota of the Southbury District Council's precious road dust. I did; I had two — no, three. Bart. almost gave notice that he would retire on a fortune if I would ride between here and Southbury every day for a fortnight." He turned to the hotel-keeper. "Think the Jay Bird wants another dose of sauce, or will a soda straight be more to his liking?"
"No more sauce for me!" Skirlington shuddered. "Let's get him inside. Adson wants to question him."
The efforts of the three men journeyed the swaggie into the bar parlour. Skirlington left the door ajar, so that he could keep watch on the bar-room, then dragged up a chair beside Sam and the sergeant. For some moments the three men watched the half-somnolent swaggie. Suddenly Sam spoke:
"What's your name?"
"Th' Jay Bird." The sundowner grinned.
"Know him?" The newspaper-man turned to the police-officer.
"No," Yet Adson spoke doubtfully. He went closer to the man, peering into his face.
"Know me, Jay Bird?"
The man shook his head.
"No, I don't think he's been through our hands."
"The Jay Bird!" Sam was thoughtful. "I've got an idea I've heard that moniker before." He bent closer to the man. "Say, Jay Bird, you've spoken two or three dialects since you've been here. Now, get this. I know you're an educated man, so get rid of all pretence or the sergeant will deal with you effectively."
"All right." The man answered in a different tone. "That what you want?"
"The Jay Bird!" The newspaper-man was raking a good memory. "I've heard that moniker before—and not in the bushland. Ah!—There was a man in Sydney who bore that nickname—quite some time ago." He bent closer until his eyes were a bare six inches from the man he was questioning. "Yes, there was a 'Jay Bird' in Sydney, in the days when I was a callow youth in journalism. Now—" He paused suddenly, leaned back in his chair, and spoke triumphantly: "I've got you, Mr. Jay Bird! Say, Mr. Jay Bird, there are some gentlemen who work in a large building at the corner of King and Elizabeth Streets, Sydney, who'd like quite a time with you."
He turned to his puzzled listeners, explaining: "Sergeant, Bart. meet Mr. Solomon Birder, once a prominent financier and company promoter of our glorious capital city—who disappeared on the eve of the day he was to attend his first examination in bankruptcy." He turned swiftly, on the man: "I'm right, Mr. Jay Bird, aren't I? You're Solomon Birder.
"Well, what do you propose to do. Talk to us now, or let Sergeant Adson take you into Southbury and lock you up until he hears from the Registrar-General in Bankruptcy."
"Here!" Sergeant Adson expostulated. "You can't bargain—"
"Give him another beer, Bart." Sam spoke soothingly, motioning to the police officer. "He's wagging too dry a tongue."
"Of course, if there isn't a warrant out—" explained Sergeant Adson judicially. He accepted the beer and buried his nose in the pot.
"I don't think there is." Sam spoke regretfully. "Solomon Birder disappeared, as I have said, on the eve of his first examination in bankruptcy. There's very little doubt that the examination wouldn't have gone far before a charge, or charges, of fraud were laid against him. He disappeared—and peculiarly, and lucky for the Jay Bird, a man was found next morning at the foot of the Gap. That man was sadly battered about the head. In physique he was own brother to the Jay Bird. Certain people swore the corpse was Solomon Birder, others were doubtful. In the end, as the man was never identified, it was assumed the financier had taken the coward's way out."
He noted the flush that for a moment suffused the swaggie's face.
"The search for Solomon Birder slackened with that, and eventually it became accepted that the incident, so far as the man was concerned, was closed." He turned to the police officer: "Surely Adson, you remember the alarming statements that were made regarding Solomon Birder's companies. Fraud stank all over them! Now, I wonder! If anyone communicated with the bankruptcy authorities, and offered to make an affidavit that a certain man in the cells at Southbury was—"
"You wouldn't do that!" expostulated the Jay Bird, unthinkingly.
"Why not?" queried the newspaper-man, in assumed surprise.
"Because you want to know about that billy of gold." The man grinned offensively.
"You're optimistic!" Sam Laske laughed. "That billy of gold is an added count against you. Of course! Well, I'll tell you, things have happened since you were a big noise in the city of Sydney; for instance, the possession of gold coins to-day is perilously near an offence. You can be locked up and fined for their possession."
Sergeant Adson frowned. He thought Sam Laske was stretching the meaning of certain financial Acts of Parliament somewhat dangerously.
"What do you want to know?" asked the Jay Bird.
"We want to know how you came to be in possession of five hundred-gold sovereigns, most of them bright and new." The journalist paused, to add impressively. "Now, Jay Bird, you can't get away with it. You can't spend that gold, if we give it back to you, you can't change it into Treasury signatures, you're just—just—"
"I can melt the sovereigns down and sell the gold." The swaggie leered slyly at the three men. "Who's to tell then?"
"The first expert you hand that lump of gold to," Sam Laske laughed. "Don't be a fool, man. Open up—and darned quick, or I'll advise Sergeant Adson to take you to Southbury and let the magistrate question you."
"Well, what do you want to know?" asked the Jay Bird again.
"Just what's happened to you since, say, five o'clock last night. That's about the time you fellows of the road doss down for the day. Now, where were you at five p.m. last night?"
"At the old house—at the Darrington place." The man answered reluctantly. "I got there about half-past four or five."
"Well?" the journalist queried sharply as the man paused.
"We all camp there," said the Jay Bird, inconsequently.
"Who's we?" queried the sergeant.
"The boys on the road," the Jay Bird explained surlily. "Mr. Markham doesn't mind us camping there, so long as we do no damage. He lets us take wood from the bush, to cook with."
"That's right!" Skirlington interposed. "I asked Jess Markham about it one day and he said he didn't mind swaggie's camping there so long as they didn't do any mischief. I told him his attitude was only encouraging them to infest the district."
"Go on with your story," said Sam, turning to the swaggie.
"Well, when I got to the old house there was no one there—so I guessed I was going to have the place to myself for the night. I made camp and lit a bit of a fire and fried some sausages I got in Waitamine. Then, after dark, I dossed down and had a bit of sleep. Then—"
"Then?" the newspaper-man prompted, when the sundowner paused.
"Then I had a dream—" the Jay Bird spoke reluctantly, watching to see if his questioners were laughing at his tale. "I did, truth! I had a queer dream. I dreamed I found a sack-full of gold."
"Kid stakes!" ejaculated the sergeant. "Tell us the truth, or—"
"I think he is telling the truth," Sam Laske interposed. "Get on with your story, Jay Bird."
"I dreamed I found a sack of gold," the man repeated, glaring defiantly at the police sergeant. "And—" He paused as if he had been about to add corroborative details, but thought better of it. "Then I went to sleep again—and when I woke up, it was morning."
"What did you do when you woke up?" asked Skirlington, interestedly.
"I made a billy of tea."
"In that billy," Sergeant Adson pointed to the billy containing the gold which Skirlington had brought from his safe and placed on the table.
"No. My billy's up at the old house. I left it there when I found the gold and ran down here, along with m' swag."
"Where did you find the gold?" asked the sergeant.
"Under one of the stones bordering the old well, in the inner yard."
"What made you search by the old well?" asked the newspaper-man.
"Because I dreamed the gold was there."
"Always go where your dreams bid you?" asked the hotel-keeper, sarcastically.
"Thought I might as well have a look." The Jay Bird grinned.
"You got up at daybreak, made a billy of tea, and had some tucker; then searched for the gold—yet you didn't arrive here until after sundown?" queried Sam relentlessly.
"That's because I forgot just where the gold was—where I dreamed the gold was," explained the Jay Bird reluctantly.
For long minutes there was silence. The three inquisitors were mentally examining the man's statements. In the main they were convincing, but certainly contained elements of fiction. Sam had a distinct doubt regarding the dream. He believed the Jay Bird had some knowledge of buried treasure.
A buried treasure! The newspaper-man thrilled, as every man will to a story of hidden treasure. They had the evidence of their eyes that The Jay Bird had found treasure. At that moment Sergeant Adson was unrolling one of the rouleaus of gold, and Sam's eyes caught the gleam of the metal.
Yet Sam doubted. There were many points requiring explaining. For instance, how long had the treasure been hidden at the old house? The coins were almost new.
"A tall story." Sam looked with almost professional envy at the Jay Bird. "Wouldn't like to amend your statement, Jay Bird? No? Then—" He paused and turned to Skirlington and the police-officer. "The Jay Bird's told a tall story—one we don't quite believe; yet he has produced evidence of his story in the gold." The newspaper-man paused, then continued: "I've got an explanation if you like to call it that."
"Get on with it," said Skirlington impatiently, and the sergeant nodded assent.
"It's this. Solomon Birder was once a wealthy man. Like quite a number of speculators he happened on a patch of bad luck. In some cases the luck takes a turn after a time—but it didn't in Solomon Birder's case. He went on plunging into failure after failure—the Commonwealth Bank couldn't have stood up against such luck!" Sam paused, looked at his audience, and again fixed the sundowner with his eyes. "It seems to me that when Birder found bad luck was stuck on to him permanently he thought it might be wise to make some provision for the future, and against the holy smash he foresaw was due. I'll suggest he did that by realising some of his assets in gold, and chose Darrington House for his hiding place. You know, Birder was reputed to be a great motorist. He boasted that when he had to go to Melbourne he always motored down—couldn't stand the train, he said. Well, if he was along this road much he'd possibly hear of Darrington House. I don't know if it was uninhabited then, but if it was, then a rambling old place like what you describe, Skirlington, would be just the ideal spot."
"That's a bit thin," objected the police officer. "If your tale's right, why didn't Birder go and retrieve his gold before this. Why, Solomon Birder crashed two years before the war."
"I'll answer that," said the journalist excitedly, "by stating that something happened to cause him to forget just where he hid the gold. I'll say that since he's been on the road, the Jay Bird has visited Darrington House many times, seeking the hiding place. I'll suggest that last night, in what he calls his dream, the Jay Bird had a return of memory and remembered where he had hidden his treasure." He swung round on the swaggie. "That's right, isn't it? Jay Bird?"
The man gave no sign, his eyes were closed and he appeared to be fast falling asleep.
"Won't answer that one!" The journalist laughed. "Then I'll take my theory as correct." Again he turned to the man on the couch. "Look here, Jay Bird, we believe, you found your secret cache in your search to-day. In the excitement of finding what you believed to be irretrievably lost, you forgot your present circumstances and charged down here with your treasure—to get the drink you of late years have come to crave. Am I right?"
Again the sundowner gave no sign of having heard the question. Sam glanced at the police officer, and then at Skirlington. Both men nodded assent to his theories.
"There's just one matter that might be explained," said the newspaper-man after a pause. "It's this—While he was telling us about his dream and his search for the treasure, the Jay Bird hesitated once or twice, picking his words carefully. Now, I have a theory that he was concealing something. Was it about his treasure, or his dream? Ah!"
The journalist grinned at an involuntary movement by the man on the couch.
"It was the dream, then." He went and bent over the recumbent man. "Now, Jay Bird, open your eyes and sit up and tell us the rest of your story. What, else did you dream?"
The slowly opening eyes of the sundowner startled the three watching men. The Jay Bird sat up slowly, looking past the walls of the room, into some future that held terror for him. He hesitated, started to speak and fell silent.
"Come clean!" Sam Laske spoke insistently. "We're going to have the whole truth if we keep you here all night, questioning you. You dreamed where the gold was located, and then—"
"I dreamed." The Jay Bird spoke very slowly; his face was pale and strained. "I dreamed that a man came into the yard while I was reaching into the hole for the gold, crept up behind me—and struck me—"
He stopped speaking, and despite the efforts of the three men refused to continue.
VERY early in the morning the of following day, Sam Laske drove the two miles between the Rainbow Hotel and Barralong station, to meet the train from Southbury and obtain the tin of petrol. When he returned to the hotel he found breakfast ready and Skirlington waiting to discuss with him at length, the events of the preceding night.
Sam replied to questions guardedly and refused to comment. Not that he distrusted the hotel-keeper, but during the previous night he had evolved his future plans, in outline, and they required still further thought before he could confide them to others, even to one he believed had neither the will nor the wish to interfere.
Immediately after breakfast he made a careful overhaul of "Matilda's Little Boy," filled his tank with the petrol he had brought from the station, and set out on his journey to Southbury, to which city Sergeant Adson had escorted the Jay Bird the previous evening.
After consideration, the sergeant had decided to charge the swaggie with the possession of gold and being unable to give a reasonable account of how he had come by it. The Jay Bird had laughed at the charge, when Sergeant Adson had informed him he was under arrest, declaring that he would be free again within twenty-four hours.
Sam was sceptical. He did not believe that any magistrate would believe the tramp's story of a dream. The occupant of the Bench would look with great disbelief on a sundowner in possession of gold he could not completely account for.
The city clocks were chiming half-past nine when Sam steered his motor-cycle down the main street of Southbury, turned into Cresswell Street and into the garage where he had parked it on his first visit to the city. Instructing the attendant to have the tank refilled and the machine ready for a quick departure at any moment, the newspaper-man went down to Police Headquarters. He met Sergeant Adson on the steps of the building, and was immediately informed that the Jay Bird would make his appearance in Court that morning and that he, Sam, would be required to give evidence.
"Believe the Jay Bird's little talk last night, Sergeant?" asked Sam, after he had requested the police officer to take the case as late in he morning as possible.
Sergeant Adson grinned: "Do you?" he asked.
Sam shook his head. In spite of his belief, confidently uttered the previous evening, that the Jay Bird might have found the gold, as he had stated, he had a feeling that he was still far from the truth—the story behind the story that the strange swaggie had told.
"What's going to happen in court?" he asked. "Going to tell the magistrate that the Jay Bird is an absconding bankrupt?"
For moments the sergeant stared at the journalist, a thoughtful frown on his good-tempered face.
"Would you?" he asked at length.
"I would not." Sam repressed the tingle of excitement that swept over him. "That is, if I wanted to solve the mystery that's lying behind the Jay Bird's story."
"Then—" The police officer paused suddenly.
"I think I would just state that I had been called by telephone to Barralong and had there found a sundowner drunk and in possession of a large amount of gold for which he could not reasonably account."
"Humph!" The police officer appeared doubtful. "Well, if I did that—what about a name for the prisoner?"
"You've got it—'the Jay Bird.' You can't want a better one." Sam grinned. "You mustn't forget that when I accused him of being Solomon Birder he neither denied or acknowledged the charge."
"What if the magistrate asks his name and he gives his right name?"
"I can't see the Jay Bird doing that!" Sam jeered. "The Jay Bird's no fool. He knows well that if he gave the magistrate the name of Solomon Birder there would be quite a lot doing. The magistrate would tumble to quite an amount of old history, and certainly remand him until you had communicated with Sydney. The bankruptcy officials would crowd here like a flock of sheep. Solomon Birder would go to Long Bay—and when he would get out again—who knows? You know how those city officials string out their inquiries. Why, they'd be a couple of years before they thought of framing charges against him—and then they'd be charges of fraud—that would mean a trial and a certain sentence of some duration—And more, the ending of the mystery of how the Jay Bird acquired that billy of gold. No, Jack Adson, take it from me! The Jay Bird won't give himself away. He'll stick to his present nomenclature, and trust to luck to pull him through."
Sergeant Adson did not reply. A frown came on his face and he tugged viciously at his rather full military moustache.
"Take it from me, Sergeant." Sam Laske could be very persuasive when he chose. "We don't know half the story, yet. If you spill the facts we do know this morning, the Jay Bird will go to Sydney, and those fellows at Headquarters will get their talons on the story. What chance then will you have to get any kudos out of this affair? They'll take the inquiry over; they'll send you orders to do this and that; they'll keep you working half your days and all your nights on the affair—and when the story is fully told, they'll take all the credit. You know that's the truth!"
Involuntarily the police officer nodded. Although he had been but a few years in the provinces he had acquired all the distrust of the provincial police officer for his metropolitan comrade. Sam knew this and believed it was the best card he had to play.
"What say?" The newspaper-man asked when the silence had lasted for a full minute.
"Sounds all right." Still the Sergeant spoke doubtfully. "It all depends on the Jay Bird though. If he holds his tongue and sticks to his Jay Bird business, we might get away with it. But if he gets an attacks of nerves and spills his name to the magistrate, I'll be in a fine fuss-up."
"He won't—and if he does, you can claim that I challenged him on his name being Solomon Birder and that he would not admit it." A sudden thought came to the journalist. "Say, Adson! Let me have a talk with him. I'll see that he keeps his mouth shut."
For a further moment the police officer stood undecided, then, with a lift of his shoulders he turned and re-entered the building, motioning for Sam to follow him. He led through the charge-room to a door, and knocked on it. Immediately it was opened and a uniformed warder looked at him inquiringly.
"Warder Saxon, meet Mr. Sam Laske, a Sydney journalist. Will you let him have a word with the man I brought in from Barralong last night—the Jay Bird is the only name he gives?"
As the warder nodded and turned to lead the way down the concrete corridor, Adson called softly: "By the way, Saxon, Mr. Laske is O.K.—you understand."
The warder looked back and nodded. Sergeant Adson shut the door and went to the charge desk.
Sam followed his guide. Half-way down the corridor Saxon halted and indicated a door in which, mouth-high, appeared a small grill. He opened the covering door and called: "Hi, Jay Bird! Here's a visitor for you."
Almost before the man in the cell had left his plank bunk and rolled to his feet, the warder was walking up the corridor. Sam grinned. Now he understood what the significant "O.K." uttered by Sergeant Adson meant.
"Hullo!" The Jay Bird peered nonchalantly through the grill. "Who're you? Oh, I remember! You're the bloke who put me away to the police last night."
"Put yourself away, you mean. Forget it!" Sam smiled disarmingly. "Last night and this morning belong to two different days. Get that? Good! Now, when you go before the Big Boy remember you're the Jay Bird. No one's going to utter a word about Solomon Birder. Understand?"
"See the cop?"
"He's wise." Sam made to turn from the grill. "Get some sense under your hat, man. Keep the 'Jay Bird' and you'll pull out. Talk about anything else and you'll go up to Long Bay for a while and then over the hill for quite a rest."
"But—" The man showed bewilderment
"Neither Long Bay nor Goulburn are desirable homes-from-home," The journalist spoke curtly. "Still, it's your affair. I've had my say—and that's all I came for."
Without waiting for a reply he turned and strode up the corridor. At the door to the charge-room the warder was waiting for him.
"Get anything out of him, sir?" The man inquired, inquisitively.
Sam caught at the clue. "Not a word of sense—just a mouthful of abuse. Hope the fool goes up for the rest of his life!"
The warder grinned and opened the door. Sam shrugged as he passed into the charge-room. Sergeant Adson, standing by the charge-desk, looked across to him, eyebrows raised inquiringly. Sam nodded and passed quickly through to the street.
The newspaper-man's next call was at the post office. At the counter he obtained some press-forms and went to the desk. There for a moment he considered, then started to write. He was quite safe to send his information to the Sydney Daily Post. The newspaper, like the Southbury Valuator, was a morning daily. The two newspapers would have the story out on the streets at the same time. That would suit him.
The message completed, and it was a long one, Sam read it carefully and turned to the telegraph counter, then hesitated. A further period of consideration and he went to the telephone department and demanded "press connection" with the Sydney Daily Post. He had to wait some time before the connection was made.
At length he was given a booth-number and in a few seconds found himself talking to Claude McInnes, the morning shift editor.
A couple of words identified himself.
"Want you, Laske," McInnes, grumpy and sour as only morning editors of big dailies can be, spoke crabbily. "You should have reported here at nine o'clock this morning. There's an assignment on the book for you. When will you be in?"
"Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next week, sweetheart." Sam spoke airily. "Listen, I've got something for you."
"But you only had forty-eight hours leave," McInnes shrilled into the telephone. "How the devil—You young journalists have ruined the profession. You think you can do as you like—but you can't. In my young days—"
"In your young days the world was green—but not so green as morning editors of present days." Sam grinned and winked at his reflection in the windows of the booth. "Now, listen, Claude darling! I'm in Southbury, and I've got a big story. S-C-O-O-P! Did they have such things in your young and innocent days, beloved? No? Well, take my word for it scoops are stuff newspaper proprietors feed on. Head, it 'Fortune Telling House,' and put a man on the line who knows shorthand from gin-slings. Now—Are you there? Ready? O.K. 'Last night Sergeant Adson, who will be remembered for his great work in—"
Speaking rapidly, yet clearly, in that strange half-whisper that only telephone linesmen and experienced newspapermen seem able to acquire, Sam read out the message he had intended to telegraph. When he concluded his "copy" he called "repeat." The matter was read to him, and he made a few corrections. Just as he gave the signal that he had finished dictation, McInnes again came on the line:
"When will you be back in Sydney, Sam?" The morning editor's voice sounded almost cordial—and Sam laughed. He well knew how a story that bore the outward semblance of a scoop affected the old newspaper-man.
"Damn you, you old desk-fossil!" Sam balled. "Don't you recognise a good story when you see one? In Sydney? Well, I'm going back to Barralong and—" He paused, reflecting quickly "—more than probable I'll sleep at Darrington House myself tonight and see if I dream of a pot of gold to divide with you. How's that for bribery and corruption, Claude? But, in return for that promise, you'll have to pacify the police for me—tell him I gave you the story this morning and that you told me to stick down here and follow it up. Understand?"
Without waiting for the obvious retort he knew was trembling on the morning-editor's lips Sam hung up the receiver and left the telephone booth. Outside the post office he glanced up at the Town Hall clock. It was twenty minutes to eleven. For a moment he hesitated, then walked quickly to the Valuator office.
The Valuator newspaper-offices were barely fifty yards from the post office. Sam drew a deep breath as he pushed through the swing-doors. Refusing to wait for the lumbering elevator, he ran up the stairs to the first floor. Facing the inquiry desk he greeted the damsel in charge with a beaming smile.
"Hullo, sweetheart! The Big Boy in? O.K. Tell him I'll spare him ten minutes to learn my business." While he was speaking his finger sought his left-hand waistcoat pocket to fumble with a much-defaced and worn sixpenny-piece he carried "for luck." He rubbed the smooth surface between his fingertips, muttering invocations to the god of Luck. Like most journalists he was superstitious.
The inquiry desk girl frowned disapprovingly.
"Mr. Parkinson is engaged," she said shortly.
"Then disengage him, darling, for the love of little Sam! I'm in a hurry."
Very leisurely the lady of the desk placed a pad of appointment blanks and a much chewed pencil on the shelf of the desk before Sam. He pushed them impatiently aside. "Say, beautiful, do you think I should trust you with the scoop I am about to present to the god of this machine? Not on your little life, Tootsie! Now be a good girl and wander into the Big Boy's room and tell him dear old pal, Sam Laske, is here with the story of his life in his bosom."
"Your life?" asked the girl acidly. "I don't think he would be interested."
"There are secrets in my life I dare not confide to anyone, even to so cherished a lover-jewel as you. No, no, sweetheart, I wouldn't sully your abysmal innocence with them. Tell Arthur I have a story—another man's story—and that he can head it 'Hoards of Gold.'"
For a few moments the girl stared at the man, disbelief in every expression of her face, then made a connection on her switchboard. She repeated Sam's words, almost literally, into the mouthpiece, then looked up.
"You can wait, clever boy," she said, very sweetly, and returned to the perusal of the raggedy-edged novelette on the desk before her. For more than a quarter of an hour Sam paced the section of the corridor before the inquiry desk, idly watching the journalists, copy-boys and visitors to the newspaper hurrying to and fro. He grew impatient, but the girl at the desk paid not the slightest attention to his requests to "hurry up."
At length a bell rang, and momentarily she forsook her novel.
"Third door on the left, cheeky—and I hope you get your fat-head snapped right off. He's in a beautiful temper, from the sounds that came through on the switch."
Sam walked down the corridor, counting the doors. He came to the door through which he had emerged the previous afternoon, disgruntled and disappointed, and knocked. A snarling voice bade him enter.
"Well, what do you want now?"
Arthur Parkinson, proprietor of Southbury's leading morning newspaper, looked up from a sheaf of papers.
"I told you yesterday there's nothing doing here. Are you coming in here every day for a month to have that repeated? Get me, I'm making no changes."
"Not even in your mind." Sam strolled across the room and sat down, uninvited, in the visitor's chair. "Well, I suppose you'd buy a scoop? If that's barred also, I'll go to the Farmers' Weekly, across the road. They'll deal, I know."
"'Hoards of Gold.'" The white-haired old-young man behind the big desk read the line from a sheet of copy-paper. "What's in it? Another of those faked stories you clever Sydney men think you can put over us provincial folk?"
"It's a scoop." Sam spoke firmly. "A scoop that any intelligent newspaper-man would jump at. If you want to refuse it before you get on to its A.B.C., just say so. I've told you what I propose to do then—and tomorrow morning you'll have the satisfaction of reading a fine story in the reptile contemporary, and curse your old bones that you missed."
"Clever, aren't you?" The close-set eyes in the long face flashed ominously.
"I'm not." Sam flushed. He rose from his chair and turned to the door. "If you don't want a good story no one else in the town has yet been offered, just say so."
Almost fearfully, Sam strolled to the door and grasped the handle. For a moment he thought his bluff had failed, yet he knew he was acting right. Arthur Parkinson was known in the newspaper-world as a queer, hard man, not over-scrupulous and a definite bully. As he pulled the door open the man behind the desk spoke: "I don't buy scoops unless I know what's in them."
Sam shut the door, his heart aglow, and went back to the desk, seating himself. He smiled, broadly, into Parkinson's scowling face.
"Of course, Mr. Parkinson, I'll tell you everything—and trust to your well-known generosity to do the right thing. That's so well known that I should be a fool not to take advantage of it. Now, there's your telephone. Ring up Sergeant Adson, at the police station, and ask him if I have a good story. He knows quite a lot of it."
"I can get it from Adson myself, if that's all there is in it."
The newspaper-magnate laughed harshly. "I don't think much of you as a scoop merchant."
"Adson won't tell you more than the bare fact that I have a very interesting story, known only to him, one other and myself—and that the other two don't know more than the bare, surface facts. All you'll get from Adson is the affirmation that I have a story worth listening to. Get that!"
For a full minute Parkinson sat thoughtful, then reached for his telephone and lifted the receiver. He asked the switch-attendant for "Police Station and Sergeant Adson," then replaced the receiver, and waited.
Presently the telephone bell rang, and the newspaper-proprietor lifted the receiver again. He spoke into the instrument, and Sam realised that Sergeant Adson was on the line. For some minutes the line clattered with question and answer, then Parkinson replaced the receiver, shoved the instrument from him, and glared across at the journalist.
"All Adson will say is that you have a very interesting story. He confirms your statement that only himself and another person know the story, beside yourself. He says the subject of your story is in gaol, and will be brought before the magistrate's bench this morning. Well, if he's told the truth, our Court reporter will get the story. What else?"
"Just the guts—the essence, the story behind the story—and most of the details of the scoop." Sam laughed, in sheer relief. "That you can only get from one person—and he's before you, offering to sell it."
"What do you want?"
"The assignment of the story at metropolitan, senior rates while it is developing, metropolitan lineage rates for what you publish, and a bonus to start with."
"Take it, or leave it—and remember that I have to be in Court to give evidence in the case, and it's due on any minute now."
Sam watched the newspaper-proprietor for some seconds with anxiety, then got up from his seat with as creditable an air of finality as he could assume.
"Oh, well! Good-day, Mr. Parkinson. I'm sure you'll be interested when you read tomorrow's issue of the Farmers' Weekly. I'll see them after the Court proceedings are finished—and Southbury people will be interested to compare their account with your bald statement of what happened in Court."
Again the newspaper-man turned toward the office door. He knew that there was exaggerated enmity between the two papers, the Farmers' Weekly partly owned and edited by a former member of the Valuator's staff. Again his hand was on the door-handle before Parkinson spoke.
"Come back, and sit down." The words were quietly spoken, yet dripped with venom.
The newspaper-proprietor did not reply. He pressed a bell-push on his desk and waited until a clerk knocked and entered the room. Then he spoke abruptly.
"Bring me an open cheque for ten pounds, made out to Mr. Sam Laske. Quick!"
There was silence between the two men in the office while the clerk was absent. When he hastily returned and handed the newspaper-proprietor the cheque, he was waved impatiently from the room.
"Tell me the story you're going to write to-day, and some details of what you have for the future, and I'll sign this for you." Parkinson's voice was low and monotonous. "Those are my terms. If there's anything in your boast, I'll deal fairly with you."
"Good!" Sam realised that he had won his victory. He had no fear for the effect of his story, on the man on the other side of the desk. "Now listen!"
Speaking rapidly and with the trained journalist's conciseness of expression, Sam recounted the incidents of the previous night. When he had completed his narrative, Parkinson shook his head.
"An incident, not a story," he decided. "Not worth ten pounds."
"Not with the Jay Bird's real name attached?" asked Sam, with a smile.
"Who is the Jay Bird?" Arthur Parkinson leaned back in his chair. "Some bum you picked up on the road, I suppose."
"A bum, yes." The newspaper-man paused a moment. He leaned forward across the desk, lowering his voice. "Mr. Parkinson, I'm going to tell you the Jay Bird's real name, and trust to your honour not to mention it to a soul without my permission."
"Well?" Parkinson's thin lips curled in a smile of derision.
"The Jay Bird is Solomon Birder, one-time company promoter and financier of Sydney and Melbourne. He—"
The journalist paused, gazing at the man before him in utter astonishment. "Why, what's the matter, Mr. Parkinson?"
"Who did you say?" The words came like a strangled cry from the man's hoarse throat. His clutching fingers tore at his immaculate collar and tie, as if he sought air.
"The Jay Bird is Solomon Birder, a well-known Sydney identity of some years ago." Sam elaborated, when he recovered from his astonishment. He added: "I see I need not go into further particulars."
"Where is he?" gasped the stricken man.
"In Southbury police station cells." Some compunction for the shock Parkinson had evidently sustained came to the journalist. He added: "You needn't fear him giving away his right name. He's been warned of the consequences of such action."
"Write the story, but suppress the man's real name. He's the Jay Bird. Remember that—the Jay Bird. His—Solomon Birder is not to be mentioned—ever! Write the story—and bring it to me—to this room—at three o'clock this afternoon. I'll see you're admitted at once."
"Very good, Mr. Parkinson." Sam spoke quietly. He looked down at the cheque lying on the blotting-pad before the newspaper-proprietor. "The bank shuts at three o'clock, Mr. Parkinson."
"Here! Take it!" Parkinson seized a pen and scribbled his name at the foot of the cheque. "Take it—and come back here with that story at three sharp. Remember, you're not to let anyone else see that story. You're to bring it direct to me. Understand?"
Arthur Parkinson watched the journalist lean across the desk, blot his signature on the cheque, and fold and slip it into his waist-coat pocket.
As Sam Laske moved to the door, he spoke again: "What are you going to do when you have written that story?" he asked, with some inquisitiveness.
Sam was glad he had already forwarded his story to the Sydney Daily Post. He replied, easily. "When I have been to Court, heard the case against the Jay Bird and given the evidence I have in mind to offer I'm going to cash that cheque, write the story, bring it to you, and then get back to Barralong. Tonight I propose to sleep in Darrington House. I've got a hunch there's something interesting about that place we know nothing of at present. I'll sleep there and—" He stopped speaking suddenly, remembering that he had little reason, by personal knowledge or repute, to trust the man before him.
Sam left the room, closing the door behind him. On the pavement before the newspaper-offices, Sam paused and lit a cigarette. He thrust his cap to the back of his head and rubbed his hair, perplexedly.
"Now, what's the matter with that old crook?" he muttered, "Seems like he doesn't love the Jay Bird, by that name or any other. That's queer! Sam, my boy, you've fumbled into something you don't understand—and unless you get the low-down on it quick, you'll be sorry. There won't be any further lushings from Mister Arthur Parkinson of the Valuator newspaper, Southbury—and that will be just too bad! What the devil does it all mean? Umph! Perhaps a dive back into the past—" "Yes. I think that'll fit, Sam, my boy, it's interesting—damned interesting—"
AS Sam Laske turned from before the newspaper-office building in the direction of the courthouse, from the tower of a nearby church floated down the chimes of the four quarters of the hour, followed after a short interval by eleven slow and solemn strokes of a tenor bell. The journalist hurried his steps. He had spent more time than he had intended with the newspaper-proprietor. He wanted to be in the courtroom when The Jay Bird made his appearance in the dock.
As he strode up Fairfax Street—the principal street of the rising city of New South Wales—he wondered what charge and evidence Sergeant Adson would bring against the Jay Bird. Possibly, for having gold in his possession and not being able to reasonably account for it. That would be reasonable, for the State does not encourage sundowners wandering through its territory with large amounts of coined gold in their possession.
As he strode purposefully along the street, Sam noted the great stride in development the city of Southbury had made during the past few years. In less than a dozen years it had grown from a small border town between New South Wales and Victoria into an important, thriving city, with a large and quickly developing port at Amberley, twenty miles to the east and connected with the main Sydney-Melbourne railway running through Southbury. The quick development of the city and port had been mainly due to the discovery of extensive oil-fields at Netherways, some two hundred and thirty miles to the west, situated on a low, barren, sandy plateau.
When the extent of the Netherways oil-fields had been discovered, formidable attempts had been made by capital interests to divert the inevitable pipe-line to Sydney, or some near point on the Port Jackson area. Southbury citizens had protested, energetically pointing out that Amberley was the natural port for the fields—that it was a fine, natural port, second only to Port Jackson on the southern New South Wales coastline.
Large funds had been raised to support the town's protests and at the subsequent inquiry the town had an overwhelming victory. Amberley became the oil fields port and Southbury its business centre. The development of the oil-fields had supported the geologists' prophesies of the oil below ground, and in half-a-dozen years Southbury had claimed and been given the dignity of a city.
At the time of the Jay Bird's discovery of the hidden cache of gold at Darrington House, some two-hundred and twenty thousand Southbury citizens barracked enthusiastically within and without season, for their native city. Filled with enthusiasm at the rapidly-important position their city was attaining in the business of the State, the citizens determined that Southbury should not only be commercially important, but the city beautiful of the State.
On the great River Murray, bordered for hundreds of miles by splendid orchards and vineyards, with farmlands that extended northward into the State and southwards far into Victoria, they set about erecting noble public buildings and parklands. Of these, and next to the City Hall, came the courthouse and Central Police Station, both situated on Fairfax Street and within a hundred yards of Central Square, the hub of the city.
Hurrying up the imposing stairway of the courthouse entrance, Sam made his way through the building to the Police Court. He found the court in full session. As he entered and found a seat, the magistrate was remanding a prisoner in the dock on an extradition warrant to the Victorian police. Then followed a short pause while the prisoner was being taken from the dock and another substituted.
During the interval Sergeant Adson, seated on a bench within the well of the court, looked about him, caught Sam's eyes, and nodded. The newspaper-man leaned back, in his seat, much relieved. He could have taken his place at the press table, but thought better not to do so.
A slight stir in the court heralded the appearance of the Jay Bird in the dock. Someone, during the morning, had suggested to the Jay Bird that a wash and a brush up might not be amiss, and might possibly gain for him some consideration from the bench. Possibly some memory of former days, before he became the down-at-the-heel Jay Bird, had caused acquiescence to the suggestion. Anyway, the Jay Bird came into the public gaze outwardly clean and respectable, and with a broad grin on his well-bearded lips. Sam smiled to himself at thoughts of the disreputable swaggie that had crowded into the Rainbow Hotel, Barralong, the previous evening, almost hysterical and hugging to the bosom of his dirty shirt the billy of gold coins. The charge proffered against the prisoner by Sergeant Adson, as Sam had thought, was of being in possession of a number of gold coins and unable to properly account for their possession.
Sergeant Adson, in deference to Sam's representations that morning, had withdrawn from the charge the word "unlawful." Supporting the charge against the Jay Bird, Sergeant Adson stated that on the previous evening he had been called by a telephone message to the Rainbow Hotel, Barralong, where he found the prisoner in possession of a billy-can filled with gold coins. In answer to his questions, the Jay Bird had stated he had found the coins hidden at Darrington House, an old colonial building on the outskirts of Barralong parish. The Jay Bird, in reply to questions had stated that he had dreamed of the hiding place of the coins the previous night and that he had partly forgotten his dream, so that it took him the whole of the day to locate the cache. The billy-can contained exactly five-hundred sovereigns. The prisoner had refused to give any other name than that under which he was charged—the Jay Bird. He had made no attempt to conceal his find and had answered other questions clearly and fully. At the end of his evidence the sergeant asked for a remand for eight days so that the police could finalise their inquiries.
It happened that when Sergeant Adson concluded his statement and stood waiting in the witness-box for the magistrate to question him, Sam Laske happened to look towards the bench. He found the magistrate staring at the prisoner, his eyes wide, his face pale and drawn. The newspaper-man wondered. Here was a fresh puzzle. He saw at once that the man on the bench had recognised the man in the dock, and that the recognition had disturbed him.
He leaned toward the man on his left and whispered: "Who's on the bench?"
"Mr. Frederick Getthring," replied the man in a low whisper. "He isn't the magistrate. One of our justices, a town councillor, and deputising for our regular magistrate, who is away on holidays. Mr. Gordon is our magistrate," he added, informatively.
Sam nodded his thanks for the information and returned to his scrutiny of the man on the bench. Mr. Getthring had not replied to Sergeant Adson's request for a remand. He sat, staring at the prisoner. In a silence that became almost a suspense, the court waited. Sam grinned. Sergeant Adson, waiting in the witness box, was allowing his chin to drop, in open-mouthed amazement. After a time, and possibly feeling that he must do something to ease the tension growing in the court room, Sergeant Adson repeated his request for a remand. Again the man on the bench appeared not to hear him.
The newspaper-man, quicker of understanding than those surrounding him, decided that something had to be done to relieve the situation. He did not understand what was happening, he could only guess to where this unnatural silence would lead. He glanced at the Jay Bird. The man was watching the magistrate, the broad grin he had worn on entering the court still on his face. It appeared to Sam that the Jay Bird was enjoying the situation and that Sam considered might interfere with his personal plans.
Rising quietly to his feet, he went into the well of the court, to the side of the Court Prosecutor. He whispered a few words in the man's ear. The police officer rose quickly to his feet. "If it pleases your honour!" The sergeant spoke loudly. "A gentleman who has just entered the court says he might have some evidence on the case. Will you hear him?" Sam felt he could have patted the man on the back for the very tactful manner in which he handled the situation. He was still more glad when the magistrate turned quickly from his long scrutiny of the prisoner.
"You say you have a witness, Sergeant?" A hopeful note appeared in the level voice, visibly held in restraint. He turned sharply to the witness box: "You may step down, Sergeant Adson. I will hear this witness and then give my decision on a remand."
"Decision!" Sergeant Adson grumbled in Sam's ear as he passed him on the steps of the witness box. "What's the matter with the old boy?"
Sam shrugged and shook his head. He mounted into the witness box and took the oath. At a nod from the Prosecuting Sergeant he told his story of what had happened at Barralong, starting from the moment the Jay Bird first appeared in the hotel, and confirming Sergeant Adson's account of what had happened after that.
"You are sure the prisoner stated he found the gold at Darrington House," questioned Mr. Getthring. "Is Darrington House inhabited?"
"No, sir." Sam answered promptly. This was the exact line he wished the magistrate to take. "I believe it has been empty for many years."
"Is that to your own personal knowledge, Mr. Laske?"
"No, sir. I was so informed by Sir Archibald Skirlington, who is the licensee of the Rainbow Hotel, at Barralong."
"Then you have no personal knowledge of that fact?"
"No, sir. I have never seen the place." Mr. Getthring looked puzzled for a moment. He looked at Sergeant Adson, hesitated a moment, then spoke:
"Sergeant Adson, do you know Darrington House? Is it occupied?"
"I know the house well, sir." The Sergeant rose to his feet from a chair beside the prosecuting sergeant. "To my personal knowledge it has not been occupied for the past ten years, and Mr. Jess Markham, the owner of the surrounding land has informed me that it is about twelve years since he built his new house and left Darrington House."
"If I may add, sir—" Sam spoke suddenly, before the magistrate could frame further questions for the Sergeant. "If one of the court orderlies will bring me the book I left on the chair I was sitting on in the public portion of the court, you may gain from it some further information. It is a recognised guide to Southbury and district. I bought it in the city this morning, but I am sure Darrington House is described in it, with its history."
The acting magistrate pondered for a minute, then nodded. While a constable was searching for the guide book, Mr. Getthring spoke again, addressing Sergeant Adson.
"Sergeant Adson, you stated that the owner of the house is Mr. Jess Markham. Who is he?"
"Mr. Markham is a farmer, sir." The police officer spoke briskly. "Farms quite a lot of land in the district."
"Is Mr. Markham in Court?" continued the magistrate.
"No, sir." Sergeant Adson took the guide book from the constable and brought it to the bench. "Here is the guide book Mr. Laske mentioned, sir."
Mr. Getthring took the book and turned the leaves hurriedly.
He found a paragraph which attracted his attention and for long moments read carefully.
Sam noticed that he did not turn a leaf, and wondered if he was camouflaging some indecision of mind. He wondered why. Surely the magistrate did not think he could release the Jay Bird without any further explanation of the finding of the gold. That would be absurd and excite comment. Standing in the witness box, awaiting the outcome of the strange situation, Sam shivered with something approaching excitement. Why did not the magistrate remand the swaggie, as the sergeant had requested? That would be logical and, as the journalist admitted to himself, just what he desired.
"I think I may take the statements in this guide-book as supplementing the evidence I have had from Mr. Laske, supported by Sergeant Adson's answers to my questions." Mr. Getthring spoke slowly, now looking directly before him, and not at the man in the dock. "I am also prepared to believe that the prisoner found the gold at Darrington House, but I cannot believe that the hiding-place of the gold was revealed to the prisoner in a dream. I want better evidence of the finding of the gold than that."
A wry smile came on the magistrate's thin lips. For a moment he glanced at the still figure in the dock, then hastily, directly down the Court.
Sam wondered for a moment if the magistrate was about to ask the sundowner to go into the box to give evidence on his own behalf. If he did that he might create an awkward situation—a situation that would put a period to the journalist's carefully laid schemes.
The Jay Bird would certainly refuse to give his real name. That would irritate the magistrate and possibly cause him to remand the man in custody. Something had to be done to guide matters in the line he wished them to take, yet Sam wondered what he could do. He straightened himself in the witness box and opened his mouth to speak, when the magistrate anticipated him.
"I think a remand is in order, and I shall rule that the prisoner be detained during the police inquiries. I may say that under no conditions can the gold become the property of the prisoner. I do not believe he can establish any legal claim to it. If the police cannot find the owner, then I shall have to declare it treasure-trove and the property of the Crown. It is then in the discretion of the Government to allot what proportion of the gold in currency it deems fit to the finder as a reward."
Getthring paused a moment, then added: "I remand the prisoner for eight days."
"Will you grant bail, sir?" asked Sam quickly.
A look of surprise came on the magistrate's face as he turned to face the newspaper-man.
"Can the prisoner find bail?" he asked, and Sam thought he saw a glint of almost hope in the cold tired eyes.
"If the bail is not large," replied the journalist boldly, "I believe the police will be willing to accept my security."
Again fell one of those queer, long silences that had happened again and again since the Jay Bird entered the dock.
Frederick Getthring leaned forward over his desk, staring at the newspaper-man. "You?"
Again Sam wondered whether it was surprise or hope that lit the cold eyes. "I understood you had never seen the prisoner before yesterday." He paused, to continue: "I think you should reflect, Mr. Laske, before giving way to any impulse of generosity. The prisoner is a tramp—a sundowner, I believe, is the correct term—and is unknown to the police of this district. Like all his kind, he is here to-day and gone tomorrow." Again Getthring paused, to add: "You understand, Mr. Laske, if you give your bail I shall exact it if the man is not available for the inquiry when I continue it in eight days' time."
Sam felt he was in a difficult position. He knew, exactly what he required and what he intended to do, but he could not explain his reasons and probable actions in regard to the Jay Bird to anyone, least of all in open court, before the gaping throng of idlers. He tried to think of a reasonable excuse for his offer, but thoughts would not come.
Sergeant Adson suddenly came to his rescue. For some moments he had been whispering to the prosecuting sergeant and they had evidently reached some conclusion. He moved forward before the bench.
"I believe the police understand Mr. Laske's attitude, sir," he said when he caught the magistrate's eyes. "Mr. Laske has informed you he is a journalist attached to one of the big metropolitan newspapers. In conversation with me this morning he stated he believed there was a big story behind the prisoner's statement that he had found the gold in Darrington House."
"Yes?" inquired Mr. Getthring, when the police officer paused.
"I have known Mr. Laske, personally, for some years," continued the sergeant, "and on my advice the police are prepared to accept him as bail for the prisoner."
"Then the police believe the Jay Bird really found the gold, in the manner he is said to have stated." Surprise shone on Getthring's face. He turned directly to the dock, addressing the prisoner for the first time: "I shall have to ask you to go into the witness box and give evidence on the finding of the gold."
The Jay Bird shook his head, smiling knowingly.
"Not on yer life," he said. "I'd just as soon stay in th' coop. There'll be food and drink there anyways."
"Damned fool!" thought Sam. On impulse he turned to the magistrate:
"I am willing to take the Jay Bird's word that he will surrender to the police on his bail, sir," he said boldly. Then added: "I understand that the police agree with me that it is quite possible for the man to have found the gold as he stated. Anyway," he concluded, somewhat lamely, "the police have the gold and it doesn't look quite fair to keep the Jay Bird locked up while they are making their inquiries."
"You don't think it quite fair!" The magistrate bridled. "I am afraid I cannot accept your beliefs as being of value to this Court, Mr. Laske."
Sam's hopes sank. It looked to him as if in a few words he had destroyed all the good he had previously done. The Jay Bird would be locked up and he would have to make his investigations without the involuntary help he had anticipated from the man. He cursed himself for his impetuous words, when Mr. Getthring spoke again.
"I am willing to believe you spoke without thought, Mr. Laske," he said quietly, "and give you credit for your championship of the prisoner. As you have said, there may be a certain hardship to the man in keeping him in detention for the next week, though he apparently does not think so. Still—" He hesitated. "Yes, I will remand him for eight days on a bond of ten pounds and will take you as security, Mr. Laske. Next case, please."
During the small confusion while the Jay Bird was being escorted from the dock, Mr. Getthring beckoned to his orderly and whispered a few words, then looked up impatiently: "Next case, please, sergeant?"
"There is no further business this morning, sir." Sergeant Walters looked up from the papers he was shuffling together.
"The Court stands adjourned." The magistrate spoke mechanically, rising from his chair and moving to the door behind him.
"You've done it now, Mr. Laske!" Sergeant Adson met Sam as he stepped down from the witness-box. "What on earth induced you to go bail for a bum like that? Getthring will escheat your bail if the Jay Bird doesn't turn up next Thursday—you can bet that ten pounds and all else you have on that!"
The newspaper-man grinned. "A sudden impulse to emulate a boy scout, sergeant. At the same time I may have a better opinion of the Jay Bird than you express."
Sergeant Adson shrugged. He was about to reply when the Court Orderly drew Sam's attention.
"Mr. Getthring's compliments and he would like to see you in his room, Mr. Laske."
Sam was startled. He looked at the man questioningly, but could not observe anything strange or significant in his expression. "All right," he replied. "I'll come immediately I have signed the bail bond."
"Better get to the old man right away," interposed Sergeant Walters. "It won't hurt the Jay Bird to remain with us for an extra half-hour. More than likely he looks upon a police-cell as home from home."
The newspaper-man nodded and turned to the Court Orderly: "Lead on, Macduff!" he said.
"This way, sir." The man led up the steps of the dais and through the door by which the magistrate had left the Court. Sam followed. He wondered what business the acting-magistrate could have with him. Was he going to expostulate, from the attitude of a senior against a hasty and injudicious action by a much younger man? That was possible. Yet, back of the journalist's mind was the thought that Getthring had shown slight, but unmistakable, signs of relief when he had offered to go bail for the swaggie. He could not free from his mind the thought that the sundowner and the man who sat in judgment on him were acquainted. He had watched carefully during the proceedings in court and he had come to the conclusion that of the two principal characters the man in the dock was the most composed.
If these conclusions were correct, to what did they lead? Only that the two men, at some period in their lives, had been acquainted? He noted, with some surprise that throughout the proceedings the acting magistrate had only once spoken directly to the prisoner, that all through the proceedings he had spoken of "the Jay Bird" never once inquiring the real name of the prisoner, accepting without comment or question the prosecuting sergeant's statement that the man had refused to give any name, except "the Jay Bird," and refused to give any account of himself. Would any other magistrate have taken that attitude? Sam, an old and experienced police court reporter, believed not. Conning over what he knew of the Jay Bird's history, Sam was forced to the conclusion that Getthring and the Jay Bird had met at the period in the latter's life when he wore the name "Solomon Birder." Supporting this assumption, in the newspaper-man's mind, was the belief that he had faced Getthring before. Just where and on what occasion Sam could not remember, but the man's appearance and personality were strangely familiar! Perhaps—
His meditations were interrupted by the orderly halting before a door and knocking softly. A voice called permission to enter and the orderly opened the door, speaking Sam's name. The journalist walked forward and found himself face to face with the magistrate.
Sam looked about him. The room was large, tall and airy. At a big desk, facing the door, almost in the centre of the room, sat Frederick Getthring, his back to the large and slightly draped windows. A chair was drawn out, invitingly from the desk, facing the windows and in such a position that the light played heavily on the features of the incumbent. Sam walked forward to the side of this chair and waited.
"Sit down!" The words snapped from between thin, hard lips. Sam obeyed quietly. He found himself subjected to a long and keen scrutiny. On his part, the journalist took occasion to scan the features of the man on the opposite side of the desk, vainly seeking to stir memory. He was certain he had seen this man before, and in vastly different circumstances. Yet he could not remember when and where. The fact that he was viewing the man's features while he sat with his back to the light did not help him.
Frederick Getthring was tall and thin. In the severely lined lounge suit he wore, his thinness was accentuated to a point of meagreness. His shoulders stooped, and his long neck, thrusting forward, gave him somewhat of the traditional appearance of a bird of prey. This likeness was accentuated by the round, grey-haired fringed head, surmounting a thin bony face. The light grey eyes were set far too close together and the hooked nose dividing them appeared very prominent. He was clean shaved and the thin, cold lines of the lips had a cruel, hard twist. The bird likeness was further accentuated by the hands clasped on the desk. They were remarkably like talons.
"So you know the Jay Bird?" commenced Getthring, without preface.
"I have a suspicion I may be able to identify him—in time," replied the newspaper-man cautiously.
"Only a suspicion." The cruel-looking lips curled in what might have been called a smile that was more like a sneer.
"Only, a suspicion, sir." Sam assumed an innocent air. He thought wise to appear talkative. "As I told you in Court, sir, I am a journalist, and we meet many people. I have a suspicion that I have met the Jay Bird before, under very different circumstances—shall I say in another walk of life."
"Only a suspicion," the magistrate repeated. "Then your memory is not yet fully awake?"
"The police are willing to accept your bail—at least they made no objection. You appear to be on very good terms with them?"
"Yes, sir." Sam was non-committal, then added: "That's part of a newspaper-man's duty. If he doesn't make friends with the police he won't get much news from them."
"Suppose not." Getthring snapped the words, almost resentfully. "Well, what do you intend to do when you do remember the Jay Bird? Inform the police?"
"That depends on what my memory informs me," Sam spoke evenly, yet he inwardly resented the man's attitude. "At the moment, sir, I am more interested in finding the truth of his story regarding the gold. That seems a matter outside police investigation. They will take steps to discover The Jay Bird's history, and to whom the gold belongs. Perhaps next week they may be able to fully inform you, sir, on these points."
"Perhaps." The thin lips took a sarcastic curl. "Perhaps you won't forget to be in Court next Thursday, yourself?" The sneer was now more pronounced. "I shall want you—and your ten pounds, if the Jay Bird fails to turn up."
"I have the opinion that the Jay Bird will be there sir." Sam tried to infuse a secret meaning into his words. "I have the opinion that the man has a definite reason for remaining in this district."
"A definite reason!" Again the look that Sam, in Court, had diagnosed as fear came, on the hawk-like face. "What do you mean by that?"
"I don't quite know myself, yet." Sam tried to appear definitely ingenuous. "It's just an idea. I'm certain that within the next seven days The Jay Bird can be picked up any time within twenty miles of Southbury City Hall. That's all!"
For moments Getthring stared at the journalist. He appeared to be about to ask further questions on the same lines as the former questions, then suddenly changed, his mind. "What are you going to do during the next seven days?" he asked pointedly.
"For the immediate present, I'm going back to Barralong." Sam spoke carefully. "I'm going to Darrington House—and I'm going to sleep there tonight."
"Going to sleep at Darrington House!" The magistrate laughed heartily. "Going to try and dream a billy of gold for yourself, I suppose?"
"I might." Sam stood up. "The Jay Bird named the place 'Fortune Telling House'—and I may as well have my fortune told as wall as the Jay Bird. That's as it may happen—but I hope to get a good newspaper story, anyway, even if I don't dream of billies of gold."
"You think so?" Again the sneer appeared on the thin lips.
"Just that, sir, and if you'll excuse me, I'll get about it as soon as possible. Sergeant Walters is waiting for me to sign the bail bond, and The Jay Bird is waiting in the detention cells for the bond to release him. Perhaps you'll see more of him than I shall. He may choose to keep about the city for the next week. That story of the billy of gold will win him a lot of friends, and free drinks."
Without waiting for permission, Sam walked to the door, opened it and passed through to the corridor. As he turned to close the door he caught sight of Getthring's face. He stared, and started, then pulled his wits together and quickly closed the door.
In that half-second view of the acting-magistrate's face he definitely placed the man on the records of his memory. He knew Frederick Getthring—but not under that name. He knew his record—and he knew why the magistrate had shown fear when he set eyes on the man in the dock. The recognition added yet another fact to the story he was building—the greatest story, he believed, of his journalistic career.
But the recognition added to his perplexities, and possibly to his difficulties. He had learned that Getthring was wealthy and a power in the civic life of the southern city. He knew that, from henceforth, powerful influences would be aligned against him—that he and the Jay Bird would be willingly sacrificed to safeguard the men Solomon Birder had associated with in the days before the great smash.
Yet those men were equally culpable with the great financier of many years before. Whatever his punishment—and there was no doubt that in the immediate future the Jay Bird must take the punishment for his former sins—these men in the rising and thriving city of Southbury must bear their part.
SAM LASKE turned from before the door of the magistrate's room in Southbury Police Court to see Sergeant Adson walking up the corridor to meet him. A mental shake, to free his mind from the many problems that had beset him during the past half hour, and Sam turned a smiling face to the police officer.
"Thought you had forgotten we were waiting for you," observed Adson briefly. "What did the old man have to say?"
"Wanted to know who the Jay Bird is." Sam laughed, then added: "Just as if he didn't know!"
"Eh?" Adson halted in his stride. "What do you mean?"
"You saw him on the bench." The newspaper-man looked surprised. "You must have seen that he showed his recognition of Bird in every look and gesture."
"He knows who the Jay Bird is?" The sergeant waited. "Then—"
"He'll do nothing." Sam was definite. "He may question you, as he questioned me." He paused and considered. "No, I don't think he will. He assumes you to be the complete police officer, who would not dare to conceal important knowledge from the Dux on the Bench. Still, if he does send for you, watch your steps. I don't think he would approve of our little plan."
"Our plan?" Adson halted before a door at the end of the corridor—a door that opened into the police-station charge-room. "What are our plans?"
"To watch—and wait." Sam restrained the sergeant as he made to open the door. "Look here, Jack. I'm going back to Barralong, and there I'm going to get at the root of what happened yesterday, if I have to camp there for a year. You must have the Jay Bird watched from the moment he walks down the steps of this palatial building, a bailed man. If he goes out of this city on the Barralong road, ring up Skirlington and tell him to get the news to me. I'll take up the trailing there, though you'd better get connections in the neighbourhood, in case I want help."
Sergeant Adson nodded, somewhat doubtfully. He pulled open the charge-room door and followed the journalist through it. The few formalities connected with the giving of bail were quickly complied with. Sam bound himself, in ancient phraseology, in his possessions to the sum of ten pounds, that eight days from that date the Jay Bird would surrender himself to answer the charges laid against him. He shook hands with the desk-sergeant and, accompanied by Adson, went to the outer door of the building.
"Anything more?" asked the police officer. "I don't quite like giving The Jay Bird a free leg."
"Which you are not doing." Sam laughed. "He'll be watched, like a cat watches a mouse, from the moment he steps out of his cell. What are you worrying about? You've got the gold, and I've undertaken to produce the finder." He paused a moment, considering. "Look here, Jack, if anyone has to do any worrying, I'm 'it.' I don't quite cotton to your acting-magistrate. He's too inquisitive, and he knows something we haven't caught on to yet. Besides—" he glanced doubtfully at his companion, "I can't get away from the idea he considers the Jay Bird something extremely like a menace—I don't say to him, but possibly to some of his connections in this city."
"A menace?" Adson was frankly incredulous.
"Yes." The newspaper-man grinned broadly. "Just that. Now don't tell me in a few days time that I didn't warn you." A quick glance at his watch and Sam hurried down the street. It was well on toward two o'clock and he had much to accomplish before he left Southbury—and he wished to get to Barralong while it was still daylight—His first visit was to the Southbury and Southern Counties Bank.
In his pocket was the piece of pink paper representing Arthur Parkinson's ten pounds retainer. He considered the cheque rather doubtful security for the newspaper-proprietor had not shown himself too keen to part with his money, even in exchange for the big story he acknowledged might result from the reporter's investigations.
The cheque duly honoured and ten pounds safely fastened up in his breast-pocket, Sam remembered that he had eaten nothing since breakfast, at an unreasonably early hour, in Barralong. Then, he had to write his story for the Valuator. It was possible to combine the two duties.
He sought a quiet restaurant and, the official lunch hour of the city being well past, he was able to secure a table to himself and enjoy eating with authorship. The two duties concluded, Sam made his way back to the Valuator offices.
This time there was no delay in being admitted to the presence of the owner. Parkinson read the script, and nodded reluctantly. The story was good.
"When shall I hear from you again?" he asked, initialling the 'copy' and tossing it into one of the many baskets on his desk. He added:
"Where are you going now?"
"Back to Barralong." Sam paused. "Oh, by the way, I spent in bail for The Jay Bird. Hope you don't mind?"
"You what?" The man's face became suffused redly, he stuttered with rage. "You gave my cheque to the police—" In his excitement he half-rose from his chair. "I suppose you had the damned impudence to tell them I sent it."
"Now—I never thought of that." Sam spoke in a tone of keen regret. "No, I cashed your cheque. The police were quite content to accept my bond that the Jay Bird would return to their fold on the day appointed. Until then—well, why not let the poor beggar shake a free leg?"
Arthur Parkinson sank back in his chair with a sigh of relief.
Sam wondered. Why did this man hate the Jay Bird, and at the same time appear to fear him? That brought another thought. Getthring, the acting magistrate, had reacted to the Jay Bird in exactly a similar manner to Parkinson's reactions, though he had had more control over himself. Parkinson and Getthring! Both of them big business men in Southbury—and The Jay Bird. He had theorised that Getthring was connected with the Jay Bird's former life, and had some nebulous evidence in his mind to support his theory. Could he make his theory a trio, with Parkinson? If so, then he had to find evidence in support of his contention.
He nodded briefly and turned to the door.
"Where are you going?" asked Parkinson.
"Back to Barralong." The journalist was about to add the further explanation he had given Getthring—that he was about to spend the night at Darrington House—but refrained.
"What for?" queried the man behind the desk. "The Jay Bird's in Southbury. He won't leave this city, if he's wise."
"Perhaps he isn't." Sam opened the door. "I've got a hunch that something new will break in that village. I'm staking on that. You'll see me, or hear from me tomorrow."
Again on the street, Sam made for the garage where he had left his motor-cycle. Watching while the man filled in gas and oil to the machine's capacity, he ordered and paid for three tins of petrol to be despatched by rail to Barralong, then mounted and rode quietly out into the country, northwards.
As he was passing through the outer suburb of the city, he saw a familiar figure on the road before him. The man was walking quickly and purposefully into the country. Sam waited until he caught him up, then braked and came to a stop beside him.
"Hullo, Jay Bird!" he said genially. "On the road again?"
"Hello!" replied the man, then bethought himself that, but for Sam, he would still be resting behind bars. "Thanks for getting me out of jug, though I don't know what you did it for. Still, I won't let you down."
"Hope not," said Sam, looking curiously at the man. "Did I take a risk?"
The man turned his head and grinned, but did not speak.
"Whither bound?" asked the newspaper-man.
"Barralong," replied the Jay Bird shortly.
Immediately the newspaper-man became serious. "I say, I wouldn't do that! The police will have a watch over Darrington House now."
"Me swag's there." The cunning, screwed-up eyes of the sundowner turned suddenly on Sam: "I'm not donating that to the Police Orphanage Fund. Get me?"
"Perhaps not." Sam thought for a moment then spoke quickly and somewhat impulsively. "Look here, if you like to pillion behind me, I'll run you out there. But take a tip from a friend. When you have your swag, just lose yourself until this day week. There are people in Southbury who seem—who may be interested."
"Is that so!" The man's narrowed eyes opened slightly and he grinned impudently. "Now, shall I guess—the bloke that was on the bench?"
"What do you know of him?" asked Sam quickly.
"Just what you know—or will guess one day." Again the man grinned.
"I know—" Sam hesitated, then continued in a lowered voice, "Look here, Solomon Birder—"
The Jay Bird looked round quickly on all sides of the road, then stared at his companion a frown gathering on his brows.
"Lor'!" he said, with an air of fictitious relief. "I thought someone had come up and joined us."
Sam stared. "If that's your line," he said, and paused, then added abruptly: "Coming with me?"
The Jay Bird turned on his heels and strolled to the opening of a by-lane, half-turning and waving a careless hand.
"Thanks for your offer of a lift," he called. "I'll see you this day week—or I'll send on the ten pounds you staked on me."
Sam sat on his machine and watched after the man until his tall form was hidden by a curve of the road. Then he started his engine and rode northwards, pondering. What had the Jay Bird meant by his last remark?
He would send on the ten pound bail money if he failed to appear at the Southbury Police Court that day week! The journalist grinned. Much chance he had of seeing that money! The police had the billy of gold and if The Jay Bird had ten shillings on his person at that moment, he was a rich swaggie.
Involuntarily, Sam patted the breast pocket in which lay his present wealth. There lay the ten pounds he had received from the Valuator, together with the money he had brought from Sydney. A short calculation and he realised that he had on him a few shillings over thirteen pounds. Lodged in the Commonwealth Savings Bank in Sydney was a similar amount. Twenty-six pounds—from which take away ten, forfeited through the Jay Bird's probable default. His delay on the road to Sydney had probably lost him what little hold he had retained on his Post job.
Against that he could set his knowledge of an inside story that might be profitable to any metropolitan newspaper, and what sums he could draw from Parkinson of the Valuator on the Jay Bird story. Not a very rosy outlook for the future, but nothing to cry about, considered Sam, with the strange ever-present optimism of the true newspaper-man.
He came to the rise in the road above Barralong and, shutting off his engine, coasted down to the hotel door. Skirlington came out of the bar when Sam brought his machine to a stop, with a grinding of brakes. He greeted the newspaper-man with a broad grin and a suggestive motion of his hand to the bar. Sam nodded. Southbury Districts Roads Council did not worry regarding dust on their roads. Propping his machine, he went to the bar counter and lifted the pint pot the Bart. shoved toward him.
Less than a minute later the pot rang hollowly as he replaced it on the bar.
"Thanks," said the journalist, with a relieved sigh. "That's settled the road watering problem. Now let's have a drink!"
"Any luck?" asked Skirlington, when fresh supplies were well sampled.
"Prised a tenner from Parkinson of the Valuator," replied Sam, grinning. "And, let me tell you, that's a good day's work!"
"A tenner!" Then the Bart. stared. "You were in luck! Get a good story?"
"So, so! Hope for a better one tomorrow morning." The newspaper-man paused. "Say, Bart., I'm staying here a few days. There's something doing."
"Where's the Jay Bird?" he asked.
"Out on bail." In deference to a questioning gesture Sam added: "I'm the mug—ten pounds."
"Cash or credit?"
"Credit—I know the Sarge." Sam pushed his pewter pot to one side and leaned his elbows on the bar. "Look here, Bart., I think you'll have another visitor soon."
"Sergeant Adson, or a pal of his." Sam explained. "I've got the idea the police are inquisitive and are hunting a trail. They were too obviously glad I offered to go bail. It stuck out half a mile that they wanted the Jay Bird to shake a loose leg, while they trailed him."
"And you put up the bail money so that you could give the Jay Bird an opportunity for you to trail him?"
Sam laughed. "Cigar or cocoa-nut?" he offered.
"Well, what's the big idea—and am I in on it?" Skirlington came round the bar and led to the bench before the street door.
"I'm dossing tonight at Darrington House," offered Sam, when they were seated.
"Yes. The police will be here tomorrow and they'll be in my way."
He shifted on the bench to face the hotel-man. "Look here, Bart., I shall want a couple of rugs and a towel. My mac. will make a decent pillow, and I'll come back to the hotel at daybreak, for breakfast."
Skirlington nodded. "When do you go up there?" he asked.
"Latish tonight. There's no need to hurry. Still, the Jay Bird is heading this way."
"So?" The hotel-man became silent. Presently he said: "Want any help?"
"Ride a motor-bike?"
"Then come up with me, riding pillion, and bring the machine back here. I don't want it about the house."
"What about the morning?" he asked.
"I'll leg it down to breakfast. Oh, there's another thing. I told the Southbury garage people to send on some tins of gas by the morning train, consigned to me here. It's paid for. When you send to the station for your supplies you might pick it up. I've enough in my tank for tomorrow and perhaps the next day, so there's no hurry."
"Bill has to go to the station tomorrow for some parcels. He can bring it back with him."
Silence came between the two men under the window of the hotel bar. Sam Laske was staring before him, over ploughed fields, into the distance. He was trying to plan and guess—where neither plan nor guess was at present available.
All he could decide was that he would go to the old house that night—and if nothing happened that night he would go the following night, and the night after that. He would go and sleep in that old, old house of a bygone era until something happened, or he was convinced that nothing would again happen there. And during the daytimes he would search the house and the surrounding grounds until he was convinced the place held no secret or clue to the Jay Bird's strange behaviour.
Clues! What clues could there be at Darrington House? In the city, where the newspaper-man's life had been spent, there were shops, houses, people, vehicles—and even jay walkers—all contributing quotas in the perplexities of life. There mysteries abounded, and there one could search for them, continually stumbling over little signs and clues that made, at length, for a connected story.
But, in the country—where in this countryside could he look for clues to the mystery he believed enveloped the Jay Bird? There was the old house. He proposed to immediately investigate that. Then there was the township. In the township were half-a-dozen houses, a general shop-post-office and soft-drinks shop in one, the hotel and at a big distance around it a few farms. One of those farms peeped at him over a fold in the ground directly before where he sat. Other farms were hidden behind the skyline, or in folds of the ground. Away to the north loomed the big patch of bush, bordering the high road for more than a mile and stretching away into distance westwards and eastwards.
Within that piece of bushland stood Darrington House. Truly the old house would be a fitting setting for any mystery. It held a history extending back over more than a century, far into the days when chained convicts marched up and down the highway, sweating, cursing, planning revolts in which unbridled freedom held a spurious heaven of desires, while scarlet-clad troopers lounged in the shade of age-old trees, only their eyes alert for any movement that might foretell revolt and the inevitable massacre, their muskets ready to their hands.
Darrington House. Sam racked his brain for any story or remembrance he had of the place. While in Southbury he had purchased a guide book of the district. He had noted that in it was a record of Barralong and Darrington House. Unfortunately he had brought the book into his evidence in the case against the Jay Bird, and had passed it to the acting-magistrate. Getthring had not returned the book, and he had forgotten to ask for it when he was in the magistrate's chambers. Perhaps he would not have regained it if he had asked. Getthring might have claimed it as an exhibit in the case.
Sam laughed suddenly. Was there a case? It may have been the newspaper-man's sudden laugh that brought Skirlington from his reverie. He stood up, stretched, and sauntered into the bar-room. Presently yellow light streamed out of the window over Sam's head. A few more minutes and Skirlington came out of the door again, stepped up on to the end of the bench and slid a lamp into a square bracket hung over the bar-door.
"What about a bite of supper, Laske?" he asked. "You must be peckish after your day's riding."
"Could do!" Sam grinned, suddenly wide awake. He rose to his feet and stretched.
"Well, you know your way about. I'll expect you in my room in under a quarter of an hour. That do?"
Sam nodded, stretched again, and entering the house went to the room he had occupied the previous night. Skirlington strolled through the bar to the rear part of the hotel.
When the newspaper-man descended to the ground floor of the hotel again he found the Bart. in the room in which they had dined the previous evening. The hotel-man was cutting finely into a noble sirloin of beef, the sight of which made Sam's mouth water in anticipation. He had not realised how hungry he had become, engrossed as he had been in his thoughts. He gazed about the comfortable room with satisfaction. The table alone, with its spotless linen, well-polished silver and sparkling glass, was an incitement to eat. Secretly, he thought fate had dealt well by him in delivering him into the hands of this strange Englishman.
The two men ate their meal in almost silence. Sam did full justice to the meal before him, and particularly to the ample pewter vessel that stood to the right of his plate. He wondered why city beer never contained the taste of country-beer. Was it that city people insisted on serving beer in glasses? No, it could not be that, for he had drunk out of pewter in the city. Then possibly the difference was in the surroundings, or the serving. Cogitation led him to believe that the former was the better guess. He sighed. Truly beer was only a country drink. He pitied the countryman who insisted on being served with spirits and wines. They belonged to the cities. What they had lost in their country surroundings the country beer gained.
A little before nine o'clock that evening Skirlington called his yardman to take charge of the bar. Sam went to the barn and brought his motor-cycle to the front of the hotel. Skirlington was awaiting him, his arms full of rugs and other things he considered necessities for a night's camp in an old colonial house. Establishing the hotel man on the precarious pile of luggage behind him, Sam started the machine and went northwards, to Darrington House. A few yards after they entered the thicker darkness of the night between the two faces of bushland, Skirlington touched Sam on the shoulder.
"A quarter of a mile now," he called. "Look for a small opening on the left hand side of the road—something like a cart-track but worse. You'll see the remains of a gate-post across the road a few yards in the bush. The stones are all over the track." Sam nodded. He slowed the machine, watching carefully along the line of bush. Presently he saw the lessening of darkness on the bush and swung the machine to face it. The brilliant light of the head-lamp showed scattered stones across the track that had once been a carriage drive. Steering carefully through these he found himself on what remained of the driveway to the house.
Keeping the machine in low, he meandered on for nearly half a mile, suddenly coming out on a half-clear area before a black and forbidding-looking block of a two-storeyed building. Immediately he shut off the headlight.
"We'll want light," expostulated Skirlington.
"We'll have to do without it," Sam answered, without turning. "I'm wondering if the Jay Bird is about."
"I should say not yet," Skirlington slipped from his seat to the ground. "You say you met him in Southbury about five o'clock. That's a dozen miles from here. It's just about nine now. Take it at four hours. A swaggie wouldn't travel twelve miles in four hours—and besides they hate travelling through the night."
Sam thought the conclusion good and logical. The Australian swaggie walks long distances, but never at fast speed. He likes to take frequent and long rests and has a peculiar hatred of travelling in the dark, usually camping down well before sunset. The sundowner is God's human creature of the wild lands. Time and occasions are not for him, and, like Napoleon's army, he travels on his stomach.
Occasions have been known when Australian swaggies have travelled long distances in remarkably short times, but these bursts of speed have always been cases of dire necessity, through drought or bad country. With a full tucker-bag, water in frequent wayside pools, he makes long camps. Another chance-met swaggie, a passing teamster, a travelling farmer or country-bred buyer; these are all occasions to find a seat on the old swag, the production of an old pipe and a talk-feast. Truly the ways of the open road and the far horizon are slow and exceedingly pleasant. Few of the men who have found the long trail have ever broken away, to return to what the deluded wiseheads of an effete generation claim to be "civilisation."
Sam looked up at the front of the big house. It loomed huge in the strange night-lights. He could see a high sloping roof, apparently as high in the air as the branch of the tall trees surrounding it on every side. He could make out the faint lines of window spaces and distinguish that they were well boarded up. Before him, at the centre of the house he surveyed a big porch, three stone steps leading up to it, and in the thick darkness under the porch the shadows of a massive hall door.
Almost mechanically he ascended the stone steps and paused before the door. Flanking it on each side were tall, narrow windows. They were securely boarded, as were the other windows. He turned to Skirlington who was ascending the steps.
"The place is locked up," he said, puzzled. "I thought the Jay Bird said he slept here last night."
The baronet laughed. Leaving Sam before the great door, he went to the left-hand window. Keeping clear of the broken glass sticking in the frame of the window, he gently felt at the boards beyond. Presently he pushed gently on one board, then urged it sideways. A space opened through which he was able to insert his arm. A few moments fumbling and the great door swung inwards.
"The men of the road have their secrets." Skirlington grinned. "You're a townie, Laske, and can't be expected to know them."
"You do." The newspaper-man retorted. "Been on the road, Bart.?"
"No. But swaggies visit the Rainbow—and talk."
"Then—" Sam showed surprise. "I thought you said Jess Markham permitted swaggies to camp here?"
"In the outhouses, yes." Skirlington answered. "I don't think he knows they have opened up the big house. So long as they don't do any mischief I don't see that it's my business to inform him of the fact."
Sam did not reply. This was not the first time since he had arrived in Barralong that the hotel-man had shown antagonism toward the district's big farmer. He pushed open the door of the house and walked into the hall, switching on the light of his torch. Skirlington followed, turning immediately and closing the door. For long moments the newspaper-man remained before the hall door, scanning the remains of an old and almost forgotten splendour—the home in which one of the pioneers of modern Australia had lived, pleasured and, perhaps, died.
Before him rose a wide and splendid stairway. It started about the centre of the hall and went up to the back wall of the house. There it merged into a corridor, passing from right to left. Sam walked forward, looking up. He saw that from the corridor branched two other corridors running to the front of the house. There was no ceiling to the hall, which rose high in the air to a glass-domed roof.
"Where are the kitchens?" he asked, his voice sunk almost to a whisper.
"This way." Skirlington snapped on the light of his torch again and led past the stairway along a passage on the right. "Going to doss in the kitchens?"
"I can keep a better watch on the house and the outbuildings from there and remain hidden," retorted the newspaper-man. "I want to know what goes on in here during the night—not to let others know what I am doing."
He followed the hotel-man through the dim and dirty passage to the kitchens at the back of the house. They came to a cross-passage with a door immediately opposite them. Skirlington pushed open the door and the light of his torch, moving slowly, revealed a wide room, the whole of one side of which was occupied by a very wide fireplace, the base of which was made of huge blocks of stone. In the fireplace stood the ruins of three very wide, but not high, ovens, with wide spaces between them. Over the ruined ovens were extended several bent and broken iron bars, old-time plate racks and heaters.
"Bit of a fireplace, eh, what?" Skirlington flashed his torch light from end to end of the oven range. He went to the fireplace, Sam following him and directed his light to the huge chimney. Sam followed and stared up the wide cavity in wonderment.
"Some fireplace, sure!" Sam swung round and let his light play over the remaining portions of the room. It was very large, and fairly clean. Evidently some of the men of the road, if they camped here, had some remnants of civilisation to their credit.
"Say, Bart., this will do me. Now you buzz off. I don't want anyone to know this place is inhabited tonight, and if you dodge about with that torch someone will get notions in their empty head. Good-night! I'll walk down and see you about breakfast-time."
He escorted Skirlington to the front door and stood on the steps watching the hotel-man motor down the overgrown drive. Then he wedged the loose board of the window well into place, closed the hall door and returned to his kitchen.
For some time he sat cross-legged on his bundle of rugs, pondering the events of the past hours, yawned loudly and long, and set to work to arrange his nap.
"Time to go to bed," he said aloud. "Get to the hay, Sammy boy!" Again he yawned. "Wonder what sort of sleep I'll get tonight?"
The rugs arranged to his satisfaction, Sam slipped out of his clothes and into his pyjamas—then lay down, pulling the rugs high about his neck, and immediately fell asleep.
A sense of warmth greater than he had experienced during the night aroused him. He lay for some moments with eyes closed, pondering.
Was it the rising sun that had awakened him? No, for if it had been sunlight the glare would have aroused him immediately. Then—
He opened one eye, lazily, and looked about him. The window was partly in the line of his vision and, although boarded, he could see through the cracks between the boards that beyond was only greyness. He yawned lazily. What was the time? What had aroused him at that unearthly hour?
There was a rustling sound in the room. Then, someone had entered the house during the night. The sound was repeated, and he realised that it came from the big fireplace, to which his back was turned. Very cautiously, and careful not to make any noise, he rolled over and raised himself on his elbow, staring in blank astonishment.
A well-made fire blazed between two of the ruined ovens in the hearth. Between him and the fire stood the slender form of a girl, industriously attending to some cooking that emitted an appetising and familiar odour. Sam sniffed. He recognised the long-familiar smell of frying bacon, and the sizzling that always accompanies the cooking of fried eggs. He raised himself still further and, as the girl moved, saw on the hearth beside the fire a billy bubbling valiantly. His nose told him that the billy contained coffee. Again he sniffed, very appreciatively—for man, after all, is mainly animal in his desires.
He must have made some slight sound, for the girl turned quickly, a fork in her hand. Sam dropped flat on his chest and dragged the rugs up behind him. For a moment the girl stared, then laughed gaily.
"So you are awake—at last." She spoke coolly, and laughed again. "What sort of a watcher do you call yourself, Mr. Sam Laske? Are you aware that I have been here quite half an hour, and all that time you've been fast asleep—and you looked as if you intended to sleep all day—Get up, do! Run into one of the other rooms and dress yourself. I'm quite ashamed at you appearing in pyjamas before a lady you haven't been introduced to! Breakfast will be ready before you dress, if you don't hurry."
"I'll bet you don't!" Sam sprang to his feet and gathered his clothing in a bundle in his arms. He ran to a door on the opposite side of the room. There he paused and turned. "Say, young lady, who are you and how did you get in here?"
"Breakfast-side stories of mystery and romance from Q.U.E.R.Y.2 are not broadcast, before breakfast-time," announced the girl, busy again at the fire. "I warn you, if you don't hurry, your eggs will be far more like cow-hide than fowl products—and I'll see that you eat every one. Get along, do! Just like a man, wanting to delay matters—and breakfast—while he indulges his insatiable appetite for knowledge."
WITH a quaint shrug of her shoulders the girl turned again to the business of preparing breakfast. Sam stared at her back for a few seconds, then passed into the second room and closed the door. The room in which he now stood was almost as large as the room he had slept in. The windows were boarded, and only faint daylight made dim outlines visible. Sam gazed about him disconsolately—the old Darrington House was not by any means a cheerful or accommodating place. Water, and plenty of it, was the newspaper-man's first thought, and so far as he could see and remember there was not a water-tap in the house. He had to conclude that the past inhabitants had brought the household water in from some well in buckets. A well!
Blankly Sam stared about the room. His eyes fell on a door through which some faint streaks of light thrust. He went to it and pulled back a massive bolt. And the bolt slid easily and silently in its sockets. Beyond the door was a yard, paved with huge blocks of stone. In the centre of the yard was a stout pump mounted on a high block of stone hollowed out in the centre and with a drain running through a hole in the stone back to the well underneath. Rather doubtfully, Sam tried the handle of the pump. A few strokes and the piston sucked and a stream of good water gushed from the spout. A quick glance at the house assured the newspaper-man that he could not be overlooked. In a moment he had discarded pyjamas and slippers, and ducked under the thrusting water-jet. He found some difficulty in crouching under the spout and at the same time work the pump-handle, but he persevered and obtained a somewhat satisfactory bath.
A towel! Dripping and tingling with the early morning cold and the earth-deep water, Sam gazed about him. He had forgotten to bring his towel from the kitchen. Disconsolately he gazed about and his eyes fell on his pyjamas. Well, they would dry, and before he wanted them for the coming night they would be wearable, if somewhat crushed. Rubbing briskly, he ran back to the house, and his clothes.
Half-dressed, his collar and tie in his hand, he went again to the yard and looked about him. A strange place, he thought. On one side stood a blank wall, evidently the rear wall of a long, low building. On the opposite side of the paved space stood a row of well-built sheds. Before him, and extending outwards for between thirty and forty paces was the yard, the paving of which ended with the line of sheds on either side. Beyond the yard were trees, not the bush trees, but trees that still showed some signs of cultivation. Another look confirmed his first thought—here was the orchard and kitchen-garden of the house.
Returning to the room Sam completed his dressing, then opened the door to the kitchen. The girl was standing with her back to him, gazing idly down at the fire. The slight squeak of the door opening caught her attention and she turned and smiled at Sam, motioning to the floor almost at her feet.
The newspaper-man noticed that the rugs had been rolled into two seats on either side of a square formed of newspaper, evidently intended for the breakfast table. What puzzled him were the plain enamelled accessories for the meal. Where had they come from? He had seen no signs of furnishings when he and the hotel-keeper had explored the kitchens the previous evening. And over everything hung the gloom of night-guarded windows, yet in this kitchen this gloom was not as great as it had been in the other room for at one time some road travelling visitor had broken from a boarded window a splinter of wood, alloying a little light to penetrate.
The girl. Sam's eyes went from the makeshift breakfast table to her person. She was young, evidently little over her twenty-first birthday, slim and finely moulded, with slender limbs and firm little bust. She wore tunic and breeches. It was not a riding costume, but essentially a country suit, suitable for purposes about a farm. Well-made gaiters enclosed her legs and her feet were shod with boots that could only have come from one of Sydney's well-known booteries. From the open neck of her tunic rose the slender, well-rounded column of her throat. Her head was small, but the delicate oval face was in fine proportion to her body and glowed with the freshness of health and country air. Brown hair, with a glint of gold in it surmounted a broad, low forehead, from under which peeped brown eyes, large and liquid. The brows were not too greatly plucked but well-matched the rather full lips, well-arched and firm surmounted by a slightly tip-tilted nose.
"But—er—" Sam glanced from the girl to the set table at her feet.
"The butter is there."
The girl laughed gaily, easing the strain resulting from their first survey of each other. "The bacon and eggs are on the stove. Bread and jam, or rather marmalade, on the make-shift table."
For a moment she looked doubtfully about her. "I don't think I have forgotten anything. No, there are pepper and salt—but I have forgotten to bring any sauce. Oh, bother! But perhaps you don't care to swamp your food with condiments as so many of our country people have a habit of doing. Come and sit down!"
Lifting a number of dishes from the fireplace to the table, she squatted down on one of the folded rugs, motioning to Sam to seat himself on the other. For a moment he looked at the ample provisions on the table, then looked inquiringly at the girl.
The girl pointed to a screw of paper, then motioned to another package "—and pepper. You won't want salt for the bacon, for it is home-cured. Coffee in the billy beside the fire—Oh!" She looked at the journalist in dismay. "I should have brought tea, in case you prefer it."
"Coffee, please, for me." Sam reached for the tin mugs and poured out the fragrant beverage. "I—"
"Yes?" questioned the girl seriously, though her eyes sparkled with merriment. "Please don't tell me that I've forgotten anything. Two knives each, a fork and spoon each. That's right, isn't it? Oh, I brought no spoon for the marmalade, but I won't object if you use your knife if I may do the same. Anything—?"
"Only the answer to the question I asked directly I opened my eyes this morning and saw you bending over the fire: Who are you, and how did you get here? I'm certain I closed the front door last night."
"The curiosity of the male is abnormal!" The girl spoke judicially. "Far exceeding the reputed curiosity of the female of the species." She paused a moment. "Surely you must have observed that, in your journalistic work, Mr. Laske. Every male appears to have oceans of time to watch everything that doesn't concern him."
"Right." Sam spoke deceptively. "Yet I have still to notice men crowding into a crowd of men before drapers' windows, to get a glimpse of new fashions."
"No?" The answer came quickly. "Then you didn't observe that they were already in the crowd."
"Score one. Yet—"
Sam paused. The girl's attitude was not encouraging. Her attention seemed to be entirely devoted to her meal—and Sam, intensely male, disliked that exceedingly.
"Your breakfast will soon be stone-cold. Why do men always want to talk when there are other and more important things to do?"
The hint was too broad for Sam to ignore. Reluctantly, at first, he devoted his attention to the ample, well-cooked breakfast before him, and in his heart of hearts was a paean of praise to the god of Luck who had sent this fair damsel to minister to his creature comforts—when he had anticipated a long mile walk to the hotel, before his morning meal.
"Well?" asked the girl, after a very long pause. "What is the verdict?"
Sam blushed to the roots of his hair. It was only with the girl's question that he became conscious that he had stopped eating and was staring hard at her.
"What do you mean?" he asked, trying to hide his confusion.
"You've spent quite a few minutes taking in my physical appearance. Are you so shy that you dare not give your competent verdict?"
"I—I—" Sam stuttered, overwhelmed at this very personal attack.
"A man is always 'I,'" said the girl judicially. "Now I—a girl—know everything about your outward appearance, your colouring, the shapes of your nose, mouth head, ears, and eyes. I knew it all before you fled from this room, overwhelmed with confusion at being discovered asleep by a member of the 'inferior' sex. Why, I had breakfast nearly cooked, and had to rattle the frying pan hard against the stove, to awaken you."
"I did sleep," acknowledged the newspaper-man, sheepishly. "I don't remember having ever slept so soundly before."
"And I understood from Sir Archibald that you came here last night to watch."
Sam grinned. "Well, I fell asleep," he replied.
"So I saw," said the girl dryly. "Pleasant dreams?"
"Eh?" Sam was startled. He stared at the girl in some astonishment. So she knew why he had undertaken to sleep at Darrington House. Who could have told her? Then he remembered, she had mentioned the Bart.
"People come to Fortune Telling House to dream," said the girl, somewhat too carelessly.
"What do you know of Fortune Telling House?" Sam dropped knife and fork on his plate suddenly, "Who told you?"
"I came down from Sydney on the newspaper-train this morning." The girl shivered slightly. "Ugh! It was a cold, slow journey. The only thing interesting on the journey was the Post's triple-column heading. That was interesting."
The triple-column heading of the Post! Then McInnes had made a feature story of the scoop he had telephoned to Sydney the previous day. But how did the girl come to know that? The newspaper would not be on sale in Sydney until long after the country newspaper-trains had left on their journeys. A sudden suspicion came to him.
"Then you—" he commenced, and paused.
"Yes, Brother of the Pen." The girl nodded. "Isn't it a fatal fascination? I got the microbe three years ago."
"But they don't take children on newspaper-staffs!" objected Sam.
"What a nice compliment," The girl laughed brightly. "But I'm twenty-three, and I'm not ashamed of my age!" Her chin tilted defiantly. "It's only the Victorian 'miss' or those in male-written stories who stammer and blush when ages are mentioned, and want to be thought to have stepped directly out of their cradles."
"Humph!" Sam tried to be diplomatic. "I suppose you're down here on holidays?"
"No. I'm down here on business. I'm interested in Fortune-Telling House."
"But—" Sam tried more diplomacy. "You said you only saw the headings on the Post while on the train?"
"I never said that was the first time I had heard of Fortune Telling House." The girl's tones were severe. "In fact, I first heard the phrase in the Express office."
"The Express office!" Sam abandoned diplomacy for astonishment "How. did the—"
"Mr. Sam Laske has the reputation of being a good journalist, but he will never, never shine as a conversationalist—he repeats what others say, far too much." The girl addressed her remark to the piece of butter she was digging from the pat in its grease-proof wrapping on the newspaper-tablecloth. "But—" she mocked.
Sam exploded, violently. "Who the—Beg pardon! but please, who are you?"
"Miss Leslie Cantle." The girl made a jerky, little, seated bow. "Miss Leslie Cantle, of the Express."
"But how did the Express come to know of Fortune Telling House?"
"Mr. Laske should remember that a modern newspaper appoints correspondents all over the country as well as abroad. That is the policy of the leading Sydney newspaper, called the Express."
"That's—" Sudden illumination came to Sam. "That's the Bart. He must have telephoned the news to the Express after I left the hotel yesterday morning. Damn him!"
"Isn't he damned enough for your liking?" The girl opened wide, innocent-looking eyes. "How would you like to be the keeper of an hotel in a potty little village like this, with the handle of an old English baronetage tacked on to your name?"
"Not one bit." Sam grinned. "I'll say this: the Bart. takes it philosophically."
"He has to." The girl flushed with her championship. "The Bart.'s a dear, and life's awfully hard on him. He's tried thing after thing and always that awful, wretched title gives him away—and no one will take him seriously then. I'm terribly sorry for him! People say, and sometimes write, that Americans dearly love a lord. I'll say that Australians dearly love to envy anyone with a title of any kind—and try to conceal their envy under a guise of jocularity."
Sam nodded agreement. "It's hard on him," he conceded, then went back to his original question. "So the Bart. is correspondent in this district for The Express?"
The girl nodded. "Any objections?" she asked.
The newspaper-man shook his head. "Not from me," he conceded. "Specially when his telephoning to the Express brought you down here to give a poor, starving mortal breakfast. But I guess there was something almost like a riot in the Post office last night. The Bart.'s story must have been in the Express midday edition—and I told McInnes that my story was exclusive! Why, he must have been reading the Express story within an hour, of my telephoning! Whew! Wigs on the green—and all that!"
"Sorry!" Leslie showed sympathy. "You've plotted it out right—except that the Express saved the story for the 'extra' edition. Still the Post gave you a good show, and your account was much fuller than the story the Bart. telephoned."
"They'll give me more than a good showing." Sam was despondent. "I can see the sack, long hovering, descending and enveloping me."
"They surely won't be as mean as all that!" The girl spoke indignantly.
"Don't worry, sweetheart!" The newspaper-man returned to the marmalade he had been neglecting. "The sack's been so long threatened that I've had time to cut peep-holes in it." For a time there was silence in the room. Then Sam spoke again. "We're hated rivals, I suppose?" he questioned.
"'Love those who hate you,'" quoted the girl, then blushed.
"That's hard on me," objected Sam. "I can't make up my mind to hate you."
"Then I certainly can't love you." The girl laughed. "Now, these affairs of state being settled to our mutual satisfaction, what do you propose to do this morning?"
"I had intended to walk back to the hotel, to breakfast," Sam laughed. "But I don't think I could eat a second breakfast—not even with the threat of the sack and subsequent starvation before me. Suppose we investigate the house."
"Together?" The girl jumped to her feet. "That will suit me, if you don't mind."
Sam looked up at her as she stood on the opposite side of the impromptu table, looking very young, pretty, and childish. He wondered.
"How did you come to get this assignment?" he asked.
"I asked for it." Leslie laughed. "Mr. Winter didn't want me to have it, but I was able to give him reasons—" She hesitated. "—such reasons that he told me to come down and see what I could do."
For a moment she paused, then continued: "He said that if I didn't make good on the first story he would have to send a man down to relieve me."
"The brute!" Sam sprang to hot championship. "Look here, Leslie, if he sends anyone down in your place we'll cold-shoulder him and keep the news for you. How's that? Anyway, if he sends anyone immediately, they can't get here before tomorrow, not even if they motor. By that time we'll have a whale of a story for you."
"But it's your story," objected the girl. "You can't give away your story to me."
"Can't I?" Sam grew indignant. "We'll see about that when the new bloke turns up. Besides—I've told you, the Post will probably sack me soon."
"But they won't, if you make good on this story." Leslie stuck to her point.
"I don't care." Sam lowered his voice involuntarily. "I'll tell you. I'm working a double. When I was in Southbury yesterday, I saw Parkinson of the Valuator and arranged with him to run the story in his paper. So, you see, if the Post gets nasty I know just how to tell them to go to—"
"S-hh-h!" The girl put her finger to her lips, then laughed. "No, I don't mind, if you want to finish. I've heard the Post called worse than that in the Express's reporters' room." She paused, then asked: "What do we do first, Sam?"
"Explore the house—" The newspaper-man checked himself. "No, we'll do the grounds first. The Bart. had the opinion last night that the Jay Bird found the pot of gold outside the house."
"Where?" Leslie ran to the door, out into the big hall, and to the hall door. "Let me see! We'll go round the yards and outbuildings first. We should find some tracks of the man there."
Sam nodded. He held the same opinion as the girl.
Walking quickly the man and girl circled the big house, exploring every building and plantation they found. Nowhere could they find signs of recent campings. The few footprints they came across, between the house and the main road Sam declared to have been left by him and Skirlington the previous night.
"Then, there's nothing!" Leslie spoke disconsolately. "Not a single thing! Now, where did the Jay Bird find that gold?"
Sam scratched his head. He, too, was puzzled at the absence of any signs of the man's presence about the house. He had relied, in the procedure he had intended to adopt, to work to discover traces of the swaggie's presence in or about the house, and then trace them up until he found the place where the gold had been hidden. For long seconds he stood on the drive before the house, conning the problem.
Then, suddenly enlightenment came.
"Look here, Leslie," he said suddenly. "When the Jay Bird barged into the hotel the night before last he carried nothing but the billy filled with gold. Yet swaggies don't travel without something in the nature of a swag. Then, yesterday, after I had secured the Jay Bird's release, I met him on the outskirts of Southbury—and he hadn't anything like a swag with him. More, when I told him he would be well advised to give Darrington House a miss until after the proceedings next week, he told me he had to return here to recover his swag. Now, where did he hide it? If we can find his swag we'll have a good starting point for our investigations."
Leslie looked up at Sam, excitement shining in her eyes.
"Yes, where?" Suddenly she danced round and ran up the steps into the big hall. "Come on, Sam! I think I know!"
"Where?" Sam ran after the girl, catching up to her in the hall.
"In the garden court."
Sam caught the girl's wrist as she moved forward. "No good. I've been there, and there's not a sign of anyone camping there—no signs of a swag."
Leslie stared at him doubtfully, the excitement dying out of her eyes.
"You've been there?" she asked. "When?"
"Went into the court, to the pump, to get a wash before breakfast this morning. Had to work the pump with one hand and hold myself under the spout with the other."
The girl laughed, almost joyously. "That's the kitchen court, not the garden court. Come on, do!"
The girl swung round on her heels and went to a door on the right hand side of the hall and opened it. The room beyond was in semi-darkness, as were all the rooms in the house Sam had visited. On the far side of the room Sam could see, creeping through spaces between rough boards, lines of light. He followed Leslie across the big room, to find her tugging at French-window fastenings. She called, impatiently, over her shoulder:
"Get these open, Sam."
The newspaper-man found that the windows were nailed up and covered with rough boarding, where once glass had been. For a moment or two he struggled to get the window open, then realised the futility of his efforts. He stepped back a pace and scanned the window, then tested the boarding.
"This one seems loose, Leslie," he said at length. "Yes, it's loose, yet not sufficiently loose for me to move with my hands." Again he stepped back into the room. "If only I had some form of lever—"
"One of the bars from the kitchen range!" Leslie was fairly dancing with excitement. Suddenly she sobered. "I'm afraid they're too thick, though. I know! Sam, have you a penknife?"
The journalist produced a heavy penknife and held it out to the girl.
"I'll get the bar," she decided. "You work on the edges of those boards, so as to make a place we can thrust the bar into. Get to it, Sam! I won't be a moment!"
Long before Sam had carved away sufficient of the boarding to make a hole big enough for the bar to enter, the girl returned carrying lustily a long iron bar four feet in length and about two by one inches in section. Sam turned from his labours for a moment to survey the bar and nodded. That bar would certainly wrench the board from their nail holds.
At length he took the bar and tested it in the hole he had carved in the boards. It fitted very tightly and stuck before sufficient length had passed through to give him leverage. He went to the end of the bar and lifted it, thrusting forward with all his strength. The wood gave with a wrenching sound, followed by the tinkle of broken glass.
"Remains of what was once a window," Sam grinned.
"Never mind the window," Leslie ordered. "Get that board out, quick!"
Sam threw his weight on the bar and the board gave with a rending of long driven nails. Shifting the bar along the line of the board, Sam again applied his weight. Now he dropped the bar to the floor and took the board in his hands, and with a big effort wrenched it from its place.
He gave one look into the court beyond, then quickly moved before the girl.
"Leslie," he said, and he was thankful that his back was to the light so that she could not see his face distinctly. "Les, old girl! I think you had better go down to the hotel and ask the Bart. to come up here at once. And, you might tell him to ring up Sergeant Adson, at Southbury, and ask him to come here immediately."
For a moment the girl looked up at him, her eyes wide with astonishment. Then the hidden meaning of his words came to her. She swayed slightly, recovered, to catch Sam by the lapels of his coat.
"It's—it's—" Her eyes were big and frightened. "Sam, you think—you know—you know—"
"I'm afraid so, Leslie." Sam spoke hurriedly. "I don't want you to look, old girl—so I'm asking you to take my word. I want you to go down to the hotel and send the Bart. to me—and telephone to Southbury. Skirlington will help you. And, I promise you, Leslie, you shall see every line I write, and I'll give you every help with your copy before I send away mine. That's definite—and you can trust me—you know that."
He paused, unable to think of any other urge he could advance to the girl, to prevent her seeing what lay in the garden beyond the window. He looked down into her eyes, and Leslie read the anxiety in his—and nodded.
"I'm sorry to give you such a long walk, old girl," Sam continued lamely. "But I can't leave you here—with that. I've got to watch it. You know that—"
Again he stopped speaking. Leslie's face was white, her eyes mere blanks of light, her lips so pale that the lipstick stood out starkly on her skin. She kept nodding, but made no other motion. Sam caught her roughly by the shoulders, gently shaking her.
"Look here, Leslie!" he said, and his breath came from between his lips in short, hurtful gasps. "You've got to believe me! I'm not holding out on you. You shall have everything there is. I won't send on a line to any paper until you've read it. You shall have my copy and post it with yours—and at what time of day you like. I won't 'dutch' you, honest! Leslie! Leslie! Wake up, girl! I want you to go down to the hotel. Oh, girl, wake up and understand!"
Suddenly life came back to the girl. The colour returned to her face, expression to her wide eyes. She shifted under his grasp of her shoulder and looked up at him with a tremulous little smile on her pale lips. Frankly, she held out her hand—a hand that trembled with the residues of fear and superstition that had shook her.
"I know, Sam," she said. "You're not mean, if you do happen to be a newspaper-man with a big story. I'm going. I won't be long!"
Standing under the portico before the great hall doors, Sam watched the girl's slight figure speed down the old carriage drive. At the spot where the overgrown clearing about the house merged with the dense surrounding bush, Leslie turned and waved to him.
Sam raised his arm in a farewell gesture. Then, the girl no longer in sight, he re-entered the old house. Leaving the hall-door open, he went to the big reception room overlooking the garden court, and to the window from which he had prised the board. For long moments he stood before the window, looking out on the wide space that had once been the recreation ground of the women who had once called that house "home", looking out on the still figure lying beside the tall, ornamental group of statuary in the centre of the garden, looking on the dark heap of flesh, bones and clothing that had once been a man.
He shuddered, then made as if to tear the remaining boards from the window, and desisted. For long moments he paced the length of the room, partly shrouded in gloom. Then with a gesture of repugnance he lifted the iron bar.
Averting his eyes from the court, he prised the boards from the window, lying them carefully beside the wainscoting in the room, some distance from the window. A few blows from the iron bar forced the catches and nails that held the two frames of the window together, then abruptly he turned back into the room and resumed his pacing up and down its length.
Carefully he considered the problem he had undertaken to investigate and the new problem that had come into his life within the past few minutes. He surveyed everything that had happened from the moment the Jay Bird had crashed into the hotel-bar, the billy of gold hugged to his breast. He came to his venture into that house, to watch through the long night hours. Suddenly he clasped his hands to his head.
Tortured words came from his lips:
"Everything!" he muttered. "Everything, just as I dreamed it! The girl! The Jay Bird! The dead—" With a gesture of despair he flung up his hands, staring up at the blackened, ornately-carved ceiling of the room. "God, is the rest of my dream going to happen too? What damned curse rests on this old house?"
WHAT had happened in Darrington House during the long night hours through which he had slept—and dreamed? Sam Laske tried to construct some theory that would account for all the facts he knew. He had come to Darrington House, bringing Skirlington with him on the pillion of his motor-cycle. They had forced a way into the house, disregarding any noise they might have made. Because they had arrived after dark, they had not searched the place, merely contenting themselves with finding a suitable place in which he could camp, and keep watch. There might have been someone already in that house when he and the Bart. arrived. Someone who did not desire his name, or presence to be known and who had sought a safe hiding place when they had entered the building. The way was open to anyone. Sam knew that had he wished he could have entered the house secretly and silently—but he and the Bart. had not thought of that. Who had been in the house?
Sam altered his question. Had the person who had certainly been in the house the previous night come to it before he and the Bart. had entered it, or had that person entered after the hotel-keeper had left the place and while he was asleep on the kitchen floor?
At the moment, Sam grinned wryly. He had intended to watch and had fallen asleep almost directly he laid down. His last waking thought the previous night had been that, anyhow, he could test his second question—was there something in the atmosphere of the old house that made for the truth of the fantastic name he had bestowed on the place: "The Fortune Telling House?"
Again the first thought recurred. Had the Jay Bird come to the house during the night, after he had fallen asleep, and entered it? This brought a new question into his mind. He went to the window and peered out on to the garden court—at the still form beside the stone-built erection in the centre of the space. As he stared at the dead man the thought came into his mind that he looked remarkably like the Jay Bird, yet Sam could not be sure. The man was lying doubled up with his back to the window, in a position that made identification at that distance impossible.
Impulsively the newspaper-man stepped through the window on to the uppermost of the two stone steps that led down to the garden. There he stopped quickly. His large experience of police work caused him to hesitate. It would not be wise to leave his footprints near the scene of the murder—and he knew the man before him had been murdered. The ominous dark stain on the ground beside him told him that.
And, as he continued to stare at the corpse, the conviction grew that he was looking on all that remained of the Jay Bird. If he was correct in his supposition, then the Jay Bird had travelled through the night to get to the house. For what reason? It could not be to retrieve his swag, although The Jay Bird had given that reason for his intention to visit Darrington House as soon as possible.
Here came another question. The Jay Bird had stated that his swag was at Darrington House. He had not had it with him when he came to the Barralong Hotel two nights before. He had not had it with him in Southbury. Then, he and Leslie had that morning searched the environments of the house, and had not found it. A sudden conviction came to the newspaper-man that the Jay Bird had spoken correctly when he stated that he had left his swag at Darrington House.
Leslie, the Bart. and he had assumed the man had meant he had left his swag at the camp he had made somewhere about the environs of the house. They had searched that morning on that assumption and had seen no signs of recent camping in the outhouses or grounds. What if the swaggie's words were to be taken literally, and that the man had camped within the house?
Abruptly Sam turned from the window and went to the great hall. A careful survey of the place showed that no one had camped there and the journalist could not discover any place where the swag could have been hidden. Sam had come out of the huge, gaunt reception room by the door close to the main entrance of the house. Immediately opposite him was another door. He crossed the hall and opened it, to stare in on a fair-sized room. In the room a door on the wall to his right stood partly open. Sam felt for his torch and flashed on the light, for the room was in partial darkness. He passed through the second door into another room. This room, like the first he had surveyed, was entirely bare of any place in which a swag could be hidden.
There were two more doors to the second room. One to Sam's right and, he believed, opening into the hall. The other was directly opposite the door by which he had entered.
He went on through this door, to find himself in a long, wide room, bordered on two sides by tall windows, boarded up. On the right hand side of this room were two doors. He opened both. The first led into a passage which, he believed, connected with the hall and the house offices. The second led into a small room. If the room he had just left had been used, as he believed, as a dining-room, then he was now in the butler's pantry. Each wall of the butler's pantry held a door. The door on the left led, Sam believed and was supported in the theory by the line of wall coinciding with the windows of the dining-room, into some yard or gardens. The door on the right revealed a narrow passage.
Sam went to the door in the wall opposite him, and found himself in the kitchen in which he had passed the previous night. On the floor were the remains of the breakfast he and the girl had eaten. Again, each wall of the room held a door. Those to the left and right led to the yard and the passage, respectively. Sam went to the door in the opposite wall. Now he was in the room he had used for a dressing-room that morning. On the left was the door to the yard. Again Sam assumed that the door on the left opened into the passage, and went to the door opposite.
The room he now entered was long and narrow. On the opposite wall were several long iron hooks. In the centre of the wall, high up to the ceiling was a small square opening. For a moment the young man was puzzled. There was only the one door, through which he had entered into this room. Then, suddenly, explanation came. He was in the meat store house of the old house, that had once been the headquarters of a huge cattle station. On the wall before him had hung the sides of beef for the use of the household and the convicts who served the station—and through that square hole, high up on the wall, cursing convicts had emptied pails of water, to form a rough sort of refrigerator.
Confident that he had surveyed the width of the house on its rear side, Sam went back to the room in which he had dressed, and opened the door into the passage. A little to his left, and before him, extended another long passage. Flashing his light about, and particularly over the floor, so that he should not stumble over any obstruction, the newspaper-man went down this new passage.
He noticed immediately that this passage was much lighter than any other part of the house, and was puzzled to discover the reason until he noticed that, high up on the wall on his right hand, were small oblong windows, heavily barred. Now he saw that all doors leading out of this passage were on his left.
The first door he opened led into a room that had evidently been one of the storerooms. The second door revealed a room, evidently used for the same purpose. The third room was smaller and different. A few moments' reflection, and the sight of a set of heavy door-posts from which the remains of a massive door still hung, informed him that he was now in that section of the house set apart for the convict house-servants, or possibly only the women-servants.
He went down the passage, counting the doors, and occasionally opening one. He counted four of these rooms. At the end of the passage he came on a much larger room. Again he was puzzled. For what purpose was this room used? He crossed to the boarded and barred window and through chinks between the boards looked out on bushland. Possibly, this was the butler's private room. That was possible for, naturally, he would sleep with, and be responsible for, the house-servants.
Shrugging his shoulders, and confident that he could not get out of the house from this wing, Sam retraced his steps up the passage. At the angle opposite the kitchen door, he hesitated, then decided to trace this new passage. It led him the width of the two kitchens, and there he found another passage leading into the great hall, beside the stairway of the house.
Throughout his tour of the wide space covered by the old house, Sam had seen no signs of occupancy. More, he had seen no signs that any person, other than himself, had camped in the place recently.
Moody and disgusted with his failure to discover anything of use in his inquiry, he sauntered through the hall, into the big reception room, passing almost immediately to the open window and glancing out on the garden court. For a few minutes he stood before the window, then drew pencil and paper from his pocket and made a rough sketch of the ground floor of the old house. To complete his plan, he paced down the length of the reception room, noting that it was divided into two rooms by a noble and decorated archway, and guessing that it occupied the whole of one side of the house. Erasing and altering, he at last became satisfied with his plan. It would serve for a guide in the police search that would soon become operative.
Again he returned to the window and scanned the garden-court. Idleness and curiosity became overpowering and he went out on to the stone steps, eventually stepping down into the garden. Keeping close to the house wall he commenced to circle the garden. Leaving the opened window, he had moved to the right. At the end of the house wall he came to a neglected and thick box-hedge. During the years the house had been uninhabited, the hedge had grown enormously. For a time Sam moved along it, warily exploring its prickly boundaries. Suddenly he stopped and whistled lowly. He had found that certain branches of the box had been woven cleverly together, extending some four or five feet to the wall bordering the servants' quarters of the house.
Sam caught at the strange piece of work and pulled it lustily. The branches came forward, dragging with them an old gate, on which they had been trained. Beyond the gate was a mass of box-boughs. A few minutes' work and the newspaper-man discovered that he could pass this barrier through a similar screen of boughs.
Very frankly Sam acknowledged himself puzzled by this strange gateway into the garden court. It was obvious that the box hedge had taken many years to train. Who had had the patience to undertake this work? There could be little doubt, only the Jay Bird could have conceived and executed such a piece of work—his body in the centre of the garden told that. But for what purpose?
Sam tried to reconstruct a story that fitted with the new facts he held. The Jay Bird had acknowledged he had been at Darrington House the night before he had found the billy of gold. That was an incontrovertible fact. His second fact was that the Jay Bird was the reincarnation of the absconding financier of past years, Solomon Birder. Solomon Birder had disappeared on the eve of his examination in bankruptcy, and was supposed to have committed suicide—a body had been found at the Gap and buried as his.
When Solomon Birder had disappeared from Sydney, where had he found refuge? Possibly at Darrington House.
But against that theory Sam had the statement of the Southbury police that the Jay Bird was not known to frequent their districts. Then, surely, if The Jay Bird had sought refuge at Darrington House, he could never had evaded the knowledge of the police all these years.
The newspaper-man shook himself angrily. Directly he tried to reconstruct the story of the past few days and make it fit into facts from ancient history, he found himself wandering in a maze of speculation. He had one or two facts and had drawn inferences from them. But logic was against his inferences. He was supposing that the Jay Bird had hidden the billy of gold somewhere about Darrington House. If the man had done so, then why had he shown so much agitation when he had found the gold? It was impossible to conceive the Jay Bird as the hider of the gold, when he had been absolutely overcome with emotion on its discovery.
Striving to free his mind from unfruitful speculations, Sam looked about the garden court. Before him was a blank wall, pierced high up with small oblong barred windows, evidently the wall bordering the passage before the kitchens. On his right was another high wall. This he knew bordered the servants' sleeping quarters. Opposite this wall were the windows of the reception rooms. He counted seven windows, opening on seven pairs of twin steps leading-down to the garden court. Another shrug of his shoulders and Sam returned to the reception rooms and entered through the one unguarded window.
One question still persisted. If the Jay Bird was responsible for the strange and ingenious gateway to the garden court, how had he entered the house? It was absurd to imagine that a man clever enough to invent and construct the hidden gateway would be content to camp in the open garden when there was a well-built house close at hand.
Sam walked down the reception rooms, testing and examining the various windows. He found them all securely barred. Then the Jay Bird had not entered the house through that room.
He went back to the open window and stared out on the garden. For a moment an impulse came to him to go again into the garden to the side of the dead man. He repressed this impulse. It was his duty to watch and guard, until the police came and relieved him from the responsibility. Then, once again he would revert to the keen, inquisitive journalist he had been for so many years, willing and able to use any of the tricks of his trade to gain knowledge for his newspaper.
Sam looked at his watch. Leslie Cantle had been gone from the house for more than three-quarters of an hour. Soon she would return, bringing Skirlington.
Sam smiled wryly at thoughts of the two. It had been the Bart. who had brought the girl to Darrington House. It had been Bart. who had telephoned the news of the Jay Bird's find of gold to the Express and had thus spoiled the scoop Sam had believed to be in his hands. He shrugged. Well, what if the two had interposed his story? What damage had they done, or what damage could they do? He had realised that directly the Post published his account of the finding of the gold every newspaper would be sending representatives to the house in the hope of raking up some exclusive bit of news.
From the story, Sam's thoughts went to the girl. Leslie Cantle, she had given her name. She had said that she was a reporter on the Express. She had told him that she had obtained the assignment because of some special knowledge of the house and locality she possessed, but she had not stated what that knowledge was, or how she had become possessed of it. She had said that she knew the Bart., and from what she had stated about the man, knew him intimately.
A picture of the girl in her quaint costume of knee-breeches, gaitered boots and tucked in tunic shirt, running down the overgrown carriage-drive on her way to Barralong, came to Sam. She had been wearing breeches, yet she had stated that she had travelled from Sydney the previous night, on the newspaper-train. That arrived at Barralong soon after five in the morning. Yet she had come to Darrington House soon after six o'clock and had brought with her the utensils and materials for their breakfast. Then she had known he was in the house—possibly Skirlington had been at the station that morning and had met her there.
Of course, that was it. The Bart. had been informed by the Express that they were sending a representative to investigate the story he had telephoned through, and he had gone to the station to meet that representative. But, in that case, why had the Bart. refrained from mentioning the fact to him the previous night, when they had come to the old house together?
Sam remembered his first sight of the girl when he awoke that morning, when he had returned to normal consciousness after that strange dream.
Involuntarily, he shuddered, then laughed harshly. Dream! What were dreams but disordered imagery of the brain? Still, it was strange that he should dream of a girl who was entirely a stranger to him—and open his eyes to see her standing before him! Bah! No doubt he had half-consciously opened his eyes when she had first entered the kitchen, and her features had been imprinted on his sub-conscious mind to mix into his strange dream. That might be! Yet his dream—
Sam, seated on the stone steps leading into the garden, stiffened suddenly. There were sounds in the old house. He listened intently. Yes, someone had entered by the great doors he had left open when Leslie had departed on her errand to Barralong.
Sam sprang to his feet and went into the big hall. As he passed the reception room door he heard something heavy fall to the stone floor of the hall. He passed into the hall to confront a man, staring at him stolidly.
"Here! What do you want?" demanded Sam irritably. He did not want interlopers in the house at that moment.
The man turned slowly, staring at the journalist solemnly. He was tall and extremely lean, thin-faced to the verge of emaciation. A mere fringe of lank hair tonsured his head, and his face was clean shaven. The face was long and its principal feature was a noble nose, shiny and red—a nose that was almost a beak, well hooked at its centre line. Above the nose were bright, bead-like black eyes, set far too close to the base of the nose. A chin, long and pointed was pendent beneath a pair of the thinnest and straightest lips Sam had ever seen.
"Well?" asked Sam ominously.
The man did not reply. Only the black, bead-like eyes showed life in the extraordinary face.
Sam's temper, noticeably short at any time and considerably irritated that morning, began to rise. "I asked you what you were doing here," the newspaper-man snapped. "You mayn't know it, but this is private property. Just to amuse you I may say I have sent for the police and I expect them shortly."
"Can a disciple trespass where the Fates gather?" The straight lips opened only slightly and the journalist was surprised at the full and sonorous voice that emitted from so small a space. "Can one do aught to offend Those who control human lives?"
"Oh, get out!" Sam was exasperated. "I'm a journalist, not a believer. Keep that line of talk for your dupes; it don't go down with me. Now say what you want, and quickly, or you'll get thrown out on your head."
"I go where the Spirits lead me." The man moved a few paces further into the hall, leaving his battered suitcase, where he had dropped it on entering the house. "I come at the bidding of Those who Know. They informed me that I would find you here, Samuel Laske."
"What's that? You know me?" Sam was staggered. He recovered from his amazement quickly. "Well, I don't know you nor your Spirits—unless you get them out of a bottle. And there's nothing to drink here. The pub's down the road, half a mile. Now get, and keep going. You're not wanted here!"
The man did not reply. Hands outstretched and walking stiffly, moving each foot as if with a decided effort, he walked to where Sam stood before the reception room door. His face was devoid of emotion and the former keen eyes shone dull and depressed.
"Do not scoff at Those who rule all human lives." The full, rich tones persisted. "I have come to you and to this house at the bidding of the Rulers. They have told me you were here. They told me of That which lies in the garden. To you, Samuel Laske, I bring Their message. Do not delay or hinder lest the wrath of Those who serve the Almighty Gods strike you to the dust!"
"Oh, damn!" Sam thrust out his hand, pushing the man back. "Look here, haven't I got enough to worry over without you and your fool-talk butting in? Just give yourself a name, and damned quick, or I'll throw you and your spirit friends out of the house on your solid heads. Get that, and let it soak right into that mass of diseased matter you call a mind."
For a moment a flash of keen hatred gleamed in the small, bright eyes, and the long face showed expression. The spiritualist stepped back, raising his hands to the domed ceiling of the great hall. His voice became rounder and more sonorous.
"You, mortal in utter darkness, ask my name. Then let it be known to you. I am Absolom, the Great Absolom, beloved son of the mighty King David!"
"THE what?" Sam Laske stared at the man in wide-eyed amazement. "Say, where did you get that line of talk from. 'The Great Absolom'! Gee! That beats the band!"
The tall, thin man bowed acknowledgement of his name gravely. His eyes appeared to glow more intensely.
"I am 'The Great Absolom'!" he repeated. "And you are named Samuel Laske, a senior reporter on the Sydney Daily Post." He paused, then turned fiercely on the young man. "Am I not right?" he demanded.
"In your second guess, yes." Sam was rather startled. "Still, that's not very clever for 'The Great Absolom'. I'm fairly well known in Sydney, and it's quite possible that one or other of your pals pointed me out to you, when I wasn't in a position to resent the indignity. 'The Great Absolom!' The beloved son of King David should be able to do better than that!"
He dropped his half-chaffing air and stepped closer to the man.
"Now, my friend, cut the cackle. What's your real name, and what are you doing here?"
"The carnal powers of this earth, before I was reincarnated, gave me the designation of Silas Martinger. He who recreated my body and endowed me with spirit of one of His Servants, gave me the name of 'The Great Absolom' for within me is now the soul of the grandson of Solomon the Wise."
"Umph!" grunted the newspaper-man. "Well, get on with it! What's your lay?"
"I beg your pardon!" The slow, measured, careful speech seemed oddly in keeping with the old house.
"I told you to cut that out," ordered Sam. "You understood what I said and meant well enough. It's your carnal jargon if you like to call it that. If you want plain Australian, what's your business and why are you here?".
"I have been sent and called." The keen, bright eyes left Sam's face for a moment, staring over his head into the reception room. "The spirit of he who has recently ended his mortal career called to The Great Ones for help, and They have sent me."
"Y-e-a-h!" Incredulity was expressed in every inflection of the long-drawn-out syllable. Yet Sam felt impressed—he did not know quite why. How could this stranger have known there was a dead man in that house? Barely an hour had passed since he and Leslie, in their search for signs of the Jay Bird, had chanced on the body. Yet this man, who claimed to be a reincarnation of a son of King David, was claiming that some spiritualistic power had conveyed to him a message from the dead man, calling for help. That, of course was all bosh! Sam had no belief in spirits, except when they came, as he had told this intruder, out of a bottle bearing the label of a well-known distillery. And the brand of spirits that "The Great Absolom" talked bore no brand at all, unless it was some private mark registered by Callan Park* authorities.
(* Psychiatric Hospital in Sydney.)
Yet he could not get away from the fact that the man knew that a man had been recently murdered in that house! Could he have been a participant in the tragedy? The newspaper-man looked at the intruder with suspicion. He had to consider: was Silas Martinger the murderer of the Jay Bird!
Almost he was inclined to repeat his order to the man to leave the house. Then the thought came to him, Sergeant Adson would be mightily interested in anyone who knew of the murder and claimed to have received messages from the dead man after his decease. What should he do? He might detain the man. What name had he given? Oh, yes, Silas Martinger! Sam made a mental note to telephone to Sydney, to one of his comrades on the Post and get the man's record looked up. In the meantime—
"He who has departed called to The Great Ones for help. They bade me succour him." The man recited the words in the mechanical tones of one reciting a lesson.
"Now, did they?" Sam thrust his hands into his trouser-pockets aggressively. The repetition of this spiritualistic stuff was getting on his nerves. He felt that in a few minutes his naturally quick temper would get the better of his caution, and he would throw this fake prophet out of the house on his head—or do something equally foolish. Well, what if he did? For some hours Barralong was a closed book to the outside world—no train stopped at its small, wayside station. He could not see this man undertaking the strenuous task of walking to either Southbury or Waitamine. At the thought of the isolation an itch came in the muscles of his hands and arms. But, what would sergeant Adson say it he delivered him a witness in a highly damaged condition—and the tall man looked as if he could put up something like a good scrap.
"Now, did they?" repeated Sam, and his itch grew more aggressive. "Just for curiosity, buddy, tell me when these Spirits used your private telephone service?"
"In the darkest and most solemn hour of the night They spoke to me. They had heard the call of a tortured soul, and They bade me hasten to succour him. I had no power to refuse Their commands."
"N-o." Sam was sarcastic. "I suppose not—specially when you had read the account of buried treasure at Darrington House in one of the Sydney newspapers Eh?" He paused and stepped closer to the man. "Ever hear of The Jay Bird? Never read the Post or the Express?"
"The newspapers!" There was scorn in the spiritualist's voice. "What need have I, The Great Absolom, of the news-sheets of the ignorant. Day after day, hour after hour, The Great Ones whisper to my soul the things that happen on this midget sphere."
Sam laughed. "Still newspapers are useful—especially when your Great Ones get tired of telephoning." He made a weary gesture, again moving towards the man. "Now, look here buddy. I'm tired of your line of talk. Get, git, or vamoose! You're in my way here. I'm telling you there's no one in this house calling for help—except me, and the help I've asked is on the way here. I sent a message to Sergeant Adson more than an hour ago and he'll be here any minute now. If he catches you about the premises, with your talking line of unbottled spirits, he'll be wild—and the good sergeant isn't exactly a gentle playfellow when his danger's up. Take a pal's advice—and get!"
"I am commanded. In this house I must remain." The Great Absolom spoke with finality. "Only when I am here can I maintain the contact with him who has recently departed from his human habitation."
"And that's just where you are not going to remain, unless I lock you up in one of the empty rooms, until the police arrive."
A sudden thought came to the newspaper-man. "Here, tell me! Where were you last night? That's rather important for me to know, so out with it! And don't, for the sake of little Mike, say you were with your spirits, for I shan't believe you."
The sounds of someone stumbling through the bushes on the overgrown carriage drive, outside the building, followed by an inelegant expression in a high female voice, drew both men's attention to the hall door. They saw a short, stout woman, Carrying a very small attaché case, was struggling up the drive to the louse, assisting her progress with a long staff, the top of which was ornamented by a figure composed of the torso of a man surmounting the hind parts of a goat. Crude as was the carving Sam had little difficulty in recognising that the image was intended to be a representation of the god, Pan.
As the two men watched, the woman came to the steps leading up to the hall door. She dropped her case on the bottom step and, placing her hands on her full hips, wheezed heavily.
"For the sake of little apples!" Sam stared in astonishment. "What's the matter with this house? Are all the nuts in the country emigrating here?"
"She is Nyall." The tall man's sombre tone drew the newspaper-man's attention for the moment. "She also, is a believer, but alas, only a neophyte! In trust and faith she may persevere and attain, in due course—"
"She's persevering, all right," interrupted Sam. "If I guess right she's persevered from Barralong station—and that's nigh three miles away, if she took the byroads. Some walk for a woman of that circumference, even in the cool of an Australian summer morning." He stepped out of the hall-door.
"Now, lady, what's your business at this house. If it's any news to you, I can tell you the family's not at home."
"Oh!" The woman looked up, startled. "My heart!"
"That's better than your friend's spirits. A good doctor can do quite a lot for your heart, but they haven't dug down to the spirits yet. You're Nyall—or so your boy-friend here tells me. Know him? No? Well he seems to know you. Still, if you want to become acquainted, I'll do the needful. Miss—Missus—or should I say Madam, Nyall—which is it? Anyway, for this occasion. I'll just say 'Nyall'-meet the reincarnation of the great Absolom—? you know, the son of that old-fashioned king who used to invent a lot of songs and play the harp while he let his followers enjoy a good cat-fight."
Sam mopped his brow. "Say, what a day! I'd better send for the local sign-writer and get him to put up a board on the high road warning passing motorists to beware of the asylum!"
The woman continued to stare up at the men on the threshold. Her big, red round face, quaintly enclosed by an old-fashioned bonnet was vacant, her big blank eyes stared unwinkingly. Suddenly she spread her arms wide.
"Absolom!" she cried in a high, squeaky voice. "Absolom! Then my dream was right. The powers of evil I have gathered about this house! Pan, Lord of Earth and all that is therein, give me your strength to fight for all you hold just!"
"Woman! Begone!" Sam swung round startled at the big, sonorous voice booming behind him.
"Pan! What has that creature of earth against the mighty powers David bound to the service of his beloved son? Go, I command you! Go, lest the Great Ones, acting through their servant here, strike you dumb!"
"Great Hitler!" Sam threw up his hands, in stark amazement. "Of all the—"
On the still morning air came the chug-chug of a motorcycle. Wild-eyed and bewildered, Sam stared down the drive. Who was coming to this house of insanity? Were more of the spiritualistic fraternity gathering for the hunt for buried treasure?
Some remaining remnant of sense told the journalist that those who profess to commune with the departed are not in the habit, and usually have not the funds, to use extremely modern conveyances, except as members of the general public—and the person on the motor-cycle was approaching the house in an open, if not brazen fashion.
He waited, staring down the drive, ignoring the heated debate that arose between the two spiritualists beside him. A few seconds and a motor-cycle swung into view, out of the dense bush. The machine appeared strangely familiar. Sam noted that it bore two men, and when the rearmost of the men saw him standing on the house-steps, he raised an arm in salutation. The cycle came closer, and now Sam recognised Jack Keston, of the Post and Arthur Medley of the Express, two well-known Sydney journalists.
"Hullo, Sam!" Keston, who was in the saddle, swung the machine broadside to the steps, and dropped one foot to the ground. "We're here. Mac. sent me down to assist you. I found Arthur on the train last night and we agreed to come on together. Got breakfast at the local pub. The old boy there told us you were up here, so we borrowed your bike, and came on. What's the game, and who are your friends?"
"Spirits," said Sam sombrely.
"Good!" Arthur Medley dropped from the pillion and turned to the steps, smacking his lips. "I can just do with a spot."
"Here's two for you. I can do without them." Sam waved his hand to the man and woman who had retreated to the hall, wrangling bitterly. "Take your choice, if you don't want both. Jack can have the one you refuse. They're both hot stuff—as mad as hatters."
Jack Keston propped the machine. He strode up the steps into the hall. For some seconds he stood behind the debaters, listening, then caught Silas Martinger by the shoulder and swung him round.
"Says you! Well, hold your gab a moment." The young man's voice was aggressive. "You were on the Southbury train last night, weren't you?"
"The Great Ones bade me to travel by that mortal vehicle." The big, resonant voice woke the echoes of the old hall.
"Yeah!" Jack Keston was sarcastic. "And the Great Ones will bid you accompany a common old police constable to Southbury police cells—that's the local lock-up, isn't it, Sam." He glanced at his comrade of the "Post" and received an affirmative nod. "I thought so. Now, just what's your game, and you can cut out the cackle about the Great Ones. They've had a lot to do getting you here, and want a rest—get me?"
He glanced down at the woman. "Now, you—Why, it's 'Ma' Nyall or should I say, Miss Sarah Baters, that's if I follow your example and forget that you once had a true and lawful husband. Now, who'd have thought of seeing you here? Came down with Absolom, the Great Fraud, eh? No, that's not possible, the train would have been wrecked if you two had been in the same carriage. You're oil and water, if I care to compare you to anything decent. What's the joke? Going to hold a series of séances here. No, I don't think!"
Jack Keston, tall, slender and blonde, with large melancholy eyes, a perfectly oval face adorned with a dinky little moustache that had long since become a wearisome joke in the Post's reporters room, rattled off his little speech at a pace that did not give the two spiritualists opportunity to interrupt. More, the pair knew him. Keston had for quite a time been police-court reporter for the Post and on occasions had written interesting and sarcastic matter anent Nyall and the Great Absolom.
"What's the game, Arthur?" Sam turned to the Express man. "Why this sudden migration of the Australian Journalists' Association? And, are the president and secretary on their way down, to frame a log for the Spiritualists' Branch?"
"Cigar or cocoanut?" inquired Medley, a young-old man of medium height, with pathetic looking eyes set in a very round face. "If you'd care for another reason—it's the dead season and the Bondi sea-serpent hasn't yet put in an appearance. Lord! If my eloquent and respected chief knew what company I'd fallen amongst he'd have the best part of the staff here by this time. A pot of gold, two spiritualists—"
"—and a dead man," interjected Sam in a low voice.
"Really! You don't say so!" Medley looked slightly interested. "I must say, you are rather a fast worker. Now, if this had been tomorrow morning—" He paused and glanced past Sam at the two spiritualists. "—there might have been a pair of deaders."
"Don't let those bums hear," said Sam, in a definite whisper.
>Arthur Medley nodded. He raised his voice slightly. "Yes. Jack told me on the train that he'd been sent down to assist you in creating 'something' to fill empty columns. I doubted that. Said that you'd always shown more imagination than is good for a reputable morning newspaper. All he would reply was: 'Why spoil a perfectly good holiday?' That was unanswerable logic—with news editors what they are."
"And you came down to assist Les—Miss Cantle?" Sam grinned. "Well, we'll be a happy party!"
"That's it." The round face journalist grinned in sympathy. "Well, how do we go—pool all news?"
Sam nodded. There was no other course open to him. It would be impossible to cover up anything worth while in a place like Barralong.
"All right." Medley turned to the hall, calling to Keston. "Jack we're a co-op. Stop getting your fortune told in a by-and-whisper, and come and consult." He swung round on Sam again. "Where are you staying?"
"At the village inn. And you and Jack?"
"At the inn, as you say. There's nowhere else to stay, for a city bloke who doesn't fancy a camp in the bush. Besides, this is the first time I've ever had the chance of being entertained by a real live baronet. Gee! I'll swank some when I get back to my Sydney digs. Eh, Jack?"
"What's the row?" Jack Keston strolled out on to the steps. "Say, you fellows make enough noise to wake up the ancestors."
"OK, we'll leave your spiritualistic friends to deal with the ghosts. We, gentlemen of the press, will deal with buried treasure and—"
Sam trod heavily on the newspaper-man's toes.
"Damn! What did you do that for? Just as I was getting ready to describe where buried treasure is usually buried. Say, boys, what do we do if we uncover a pile? Share and share alike? Got to speak at once, you know, for I know you fellows. You're young and active, while I'm old and slow—"
"Except in talk."
Jack Keston nodded agreement.
"Say, Jack," continued Medley. "There's more than buried treasure about—" Then he remembered Sam's warning and glanced into the hall. To his amazement the two spiritualists had disappeared. Sam noted the surprised expression that came on Medley's face. He followed the direction of his eyes, then passed into the hall and to the reception room. As he ran into the room he stumbled over the form of the woman, kneeling on the floor between door and window, the tall staff held upright before her, praying aloud.
Recovering himself with an effort, Sam turned for a moment and stared at the bizarre sight. The situation was grotesque: the stout, prosaic-looking woman on her knees, calling aloud on the carved monstrosity she bore on her staff, calling for aid to wooden ears, praying for guidance to do the right thing to a god whose reputation was always to guide his disciples to do the wrong.
As Sam stared, Keston passed him, placed his hands under the woman's arms and lifted her to her feet.
"None of that, mother!" The young man's voice was strangely gentle. "Pan's a wash-out in this modern world—he's only useful for novelists who want a background for sexual beastliness. Now what, Sam? You were saying—"
A scraping sound from outside the open window caught Sam's attention. He sprang across the room, to see the tall spiritualist moving forward in the garden-court.
"Hi, you! Stop!" Sam sprang through the window. "You mustn't go out there!"
The Great Absolom did not obey the shouted command, though he momentarily hesitated at the sound of the journalist's voice. Again Sam called: "Martinger! The police will give you hell if you go out there! Come back, I say!"
The man's left shoulder lifted in a slight shrug, then he went forward toward the body lying beside the group of statuary.
Sam was about to follow when his attention was attracted by the sounds of motor-cars crashing up the drive. He paused, half-turned and called to his fellow journalists: "That's the police. Get them here as quickly as possible. I'll have to go after that fool. He'll destroy every clue in the garden if I don't restrain him."
"Hi! Wait for me!" Medley dashed to the window as Keston ran to the hall. He stumbled as he jumped down the steps, falling heavily against Sam, and the two men rolled into the garden together. Sam sprang to his feet, dusted his knees and looked down the garden. Martinger was half-way to the group of statuary, walking somewhat slowly, but purposefully.
Again Sam called to him, but the man took no notice. Muttering curses on the man for his stupidity, Sam ran forward. The Great Absolom reached the dead man before Sam had covered half the distance. As Martinger stooped over the corpse, Sam yelled again for the man to come away. Disregarding the call the Great Absolom knelt down and put his hand under the dead man. Sam made a final effort, covered the intervening space in quick time and, catching Martinger by the collar pulled him back.
The man, off his balance, rolled backwards on the ground. As he fell, he reached out his great, long arms and caught Sam below the knees pulling him down on top of him. As they lay on the ground, face to face, the journalist was surprised to see fear and desperation mirrored in the spiritualist's face. More, there was stern determination. The man struggled viciously.
One thought was dominant in Sam's mind as he fought with the man on the ground. He must prevent them rolling over on top of the corpse. With a great effort he heaved himself towards the house, dragging Martinger round with him. Now the man was above him, his fingers clutching at his throat. Sam tried to repeat the heave, so as to come uppermost again, but the man successfully resisted his efforts. Again he tried to roll over, and succeeded.
"You damned fool!" he gasped, and half-rose to his feet. "I told you to leave things alone. Now—"
A suddenly upthrust knee took him in the pit of the stomach, driving the wind from his body, helpless. Silas Martinger rolled him over callously, and gained his knees, then suddenly flung himself on Sam, forced him down viciously, then shook himself free from the journalist's grasp. Almost with the same movement he sprang to the dead man's side. Sam staggered to his feet, dizzy with pain.
For a moment he was too glazed to think or see, then the mists cleared from before his eyes and he saw Martinger by the dead man, thrusting his hand into the pocket of the ragged jacket. Uttering a cry of anger, Sam flung himself on the man, and again they rolled on the earth.
Martinger reacted to this renewed attack like a savage animal. Twisting round he flung Sam back, then followed quickly and gained a position across the journalist's chest. His long fingers wound round Sam's throat, and the newspaper-man gasped under the sudden contraction. He tried to shove the man off his chest, then tore desperately at the lean, strong hands that were shutting out his breath. He felt his senses reeling. Red-hot pains shot through his eyeballs.
Suddenly relief came. He gulped rich lungsful of air—air that tasted delicious, while it pained horribly. He felt the weight lifted from his chest, and rolled over and over on the ground in the agony of revivification. Then unseen hands lifted him to his feet.
"Good work, Mr. Laske!"
With eyeballs that smarted horribly Sam looked up at Sergeant Adson, standing before him. His gaze wandered to a group of three behind the sergeant. There was Silas Martinger held in the grip of two constables.
"What the devil was he after?" Sam gasped, ignoring the police officer and staring in bewilderment at the spiritualist.
"We'll find that out later." Sergeant Adson frowned down at the very visible signs of struggling on the ground beside the dead man. "I'll find that out, if I have to put this fellow on the rack."
He turned and glared ominously at Martinger. "Now, back to the house, all of you. There's been enough damage done here, goodness knows! Away with you all, and keep to the line you came here on. I don't want any more foot marks about the place than I can help."
Sam turned in the direction of the reception-room window, walking stumblingly. He felt a small hand slipped into his arm, supporting him.
He looked round, to see Leslie by his side.
"Oh, you've come back," was all he could find to say to the girl, yet he pressed the little hand in the crook of his arm close to his side. "How did you get back?"
"The Bart. and I came in the police car." The girl spoke quietly. "Sam, what on earth possessed you to attack a giant of a man like him?" She nodded toward the prisoner, walking: between his guards, a few steps before them.
Sam grinned. "Couldn't have him 'interfering with 'Exhibit A'," he retorted, and choked. It hurt him horribly to speak. "Had to do something and all I could think of was to put up a fight." He paused a moment. "So the Bart.'s here! Didn't know you knew him?"
"Oh, I've known him since I wore pigtails down my back," Leslie answered indifferently. "We were great chums."
"Oh," said Sam, cold and indifferent. A moment before he had thought the world a beautiful place, but now the sun seemed not to shine and the wind was cold. Everything had suddenly become bleak and sad.
"I'm Jess Markham's stepdaughter," said Leslie, and her voice sounded to the journalist happily indifferent, yet he felt her clasp on his coat-sleeve, dirty as the cloth was, tighten. "I've known the Bart. ever since he came to the 'Rainbow,' and until I left home to go to Sydney, to be a journalist."
"The Bart.'s a great fellow," said Sam, almost mournfully. "Isn't he?"
The girl replied enthusiastically.
"Yes," said Sam, and there was no answering enthusiasm in his voice. "Yes," he repeated.
WHEN the party reached the reception-room window, Skirlington, Keston and Medley turned immediately and seated themselves on the stone steps, intent on the drama being played in the garden court.
Martinger was taken by his two guards into the room. Leslie and Sam went through the room into the big hall and seated themselves on one of the lower treads of the great stairway.
Some time passed before Sergeant Adson returned from the garden court to the house, and then he was followed by the policemen he had brought from Southbury, surrounding the prisoner. The man gave no signs of emotion, his face was absolutely expressionless, so much so that Sam rather marvelled, remembering the contortions of fury he had witnessed during the struggle beside the ornamental group of statuary in the garden.
Sergeant Adson walked directly through the reception rooms to the hall, gathering into his train as he proceeded the journalists and the Bart. He paused when he saw Sam and Leslie seated on the stairs, went towards them and, after a slight hesitation seated himself on a stair. The two journalists flanked Sam and Leslie on the opposite side of the stairway, and Martinger, surrounded by his guards, stood in the hall, facing the group.
"Suppose this is the best we can do in regard to seating accommodation," remarked Sergeant Adson after a pause. "Well, we won't have to be here long after that doctor turns up. Wonder what's keeping him?" He paused and turned to Sam: "How do you feel now, Mr. Laske? Fit?"
"A bit sore about the throat," answered Sam, feeling his neck tenderly. "Otherwise all right. Get along with it, Sergeant. I know you're bursting to ask questions, and I want to know why that fool went berserk."
"So do I, but we'll deal with you first. When I saw you in Southbury you told me you were going to come back here, to sleep. Did you carry out that intention?"
Sam nodded. In brief sentences he told of his coming to the old house with Skirlington the previous evening. When he came to his falling asleep in the kitchen, Skirlington took up the tale and stated that on leaving the house he had ridden Sam's motor-cycle back to the hotel. He recounted how he had risen early the next morning and had driven his car to the railway station, two miles from the township, to bring back to the hotel certain goods he expected, how he had found Leslie Cantle alighting from the train with the two Sydney journalists, and of bringing them to Barralong.
After a brief hesitation Leslie took up the thread of the story. She stated that she and the Bart. had discussed Sam's idea of sleeping in the old house, and almost as a joke she had suggested taking his breakfast to him. The Bart. had driven her to the house-drive, leaving her there with the food and cooking utensils. No, she had not had any difficulty in getting into the house, for she had a key to the front door. She finished her recital with a description of Sam asleep on the kitchen floor and of his surprise when he awoke and found her cooking the breakfast.
Again Sam took up the thread of the story, telling of their search of the house and the discovery of the Jay Bird, in the garden-court. He stated that he decided that one must remain on guard, while the other went into Barralong to telephone the police—and of course he could not ask a girl to remain guard over a dead man. Then he spoke of Silas Martinger's arrival at the house, followed at intervals by the woman who named herself Nyall, and the two Sydney journalists. When he came to Martinger's strange conduct, and insistence in going into the garden, he could hardly find suitable words. The man's ideas and actions appeared too horrible. When Sam concluded his story, Adson turned to the two men, Medley and Keston.
They confirmed Sam's account of what had happened after their arrival at the house. This brought the history of that day right up to Sergeant Adson's arrival at the house.
For some moments the police officer sat pondering the stories he had heard. Presently he looked up at Silas Martinger.
"What is your name?" he asked quietly.
"I am the Great Absolom." The man drew himself up with dignity, his voice full and sonorous! "The Spirits—"
One of the guarding constables giggled, then coughed, immediately becoming intensely grave under the sudden glare in the sergeant's eyes.
"For that They Who Rule shall chastise thee." Martinger turned his bright, keen eyes on the man. "Remember, I am under the protection of—"
"You're under the protection of the police, to say at the least," interjected the sergeant ominously. "I don't quite know what I shall do with you, barring a charge of assaulting Mr. Laske." In a low aside he spoke to Sam: "He's barmy! Absolutely dotty!"
"He isn't so mad that he didn't know what he was after in the garden court," retorted Sam, also in a whisper. "I'd like to know just what that was."
"I'll get it." Adson turned to the spiritualist. "Listen to me! What's your right name?—I don't want any spiritualist talk."
The man did not answer. "When he first came he gave me the name of Silas Martinger," said Sam quietly.
"Silas Martinger! Is that your name?" asked Adson quickly. "Answer me. Is Silas Martinger your name?"
"In the days of my first being, before the Spirits called me, I answered to that name. When I was called, I was given the name of 'The Great Absolom' for in me was then reincarnated the beloved son of David, the great king and priest."
"That's eye-wash!" Angrily the sergeant rose to his feet and went to stand before the man. "You've heard what Mr. Laske said, that he told you not to go out into that garden. Why did you disregard his instructions? You know you had no business to interfere in police matters!"
"I obey only Those who have the right to order me."
"What did you want to get from the dead man?"
"I strove with my art to bring life again to him."
Sergeant Adson snorted in disgust. Again the constable giggled.
"Did you know the dead man?"
"The man you say is dead." Silas Martinger spoke more freely now.
"I have long known him in the spirit. Of his earthly body I had no knowledge."
For a long moment the police officer stared at the prisoner, disbelief in his eyes. "That's all bosh, you know," he said, at length. "No, I see you're not mad. You're simply playing with me. That won't pay, my man. If you try that sort of game I'll arrest you on suspicion of the Jay Bird's murder—that means you'll be kept in gaol while I make my investigations. And if you bring any damn-fool lawyer on the scene with talk of habeas corpus I'll—I'll get Mr. Laske to lay a complaint of assault against you and get you put in gaol for that." The police officer paused abruptly, perhaps feeling that he had expressed his thoughts too openly, then continued: "Now, tell me! What were you after? Mr. Laske says he saw you trying to search the body. What were you after?"
"I have told you."
"You have told me just nothing. Unless you choose to give me straight and reasonable answers to my questions—not calling on your spirit friends to alibi you—I'll send you into Southbury at once. Now, I'll ask you again. You were seen trying to search the body. What were you after?"
Silas Martinger hesitated, and the Sergeant repeated his question, his anger rising at the man's obvious obstinacy. "Speak up, I haven't all day to waste on you."
"The Spirits bade me search the dead man."
"Oh!" There was a sneer in the police officer's voice. "And did the spirits tell you what to look for?"
"They bade me search for a paper."
"Indeed! And the spirit friends of yours told you that the paper they required was on the body of the Jay Bird?"
Martinger nodded sullenly. "And the paper you were told to search for referred to the place where the Jay Bird found that billy of gold? Speak up," he added when the man did not immediately answer. "Am I right?"
"No." The spiritualist faced his questioner boldly. "The spirits are not interested in the metal you name 'gold'."
"But their disciple is," snapped the sergeant. "Look here, Silas Martinger, you may as well own up. You came here after the secret of the location of that gold, hoping that you would be able to grab off a few handfuls for yourself." The man remained silent. "Can't answer that one? Well, here's another. Why did you kill the Jay Bird? Was it because he wouldn't share his secret with you?"
"They who follow the Rule of the Spirits are forbidden to shed the blood of man or beast." Again the man remained silent.
"Well, we'll let that pass for the time," went on the police officer. "Tell me, what were you doing in this house last night?"
"I've got to interrupt there, Sergeant," interposed Jack Keston. "Martinger was on the Sydney-Southbury train last night. Both Arthur Medley and I saw him, and we were rather surprised when he got out of the train at Barralong." The journalist paused a moment. "You see, the newspaper train doesn't usually stop at Barralong, and it only stopped this morning because we asked the guard to put us down there. That's the rule, when people want to alight at these wayside stations."
"That so?" The police officer turned to face the newspapermen. "Now, there's one question that occurs to me. That is, why are you two here? Isn't there enough journalists in Southbury without Sydney exporting its surplus?"
"Dearth of news," replied Medley airily. "Peculiarly, our editor insists on having something to print. Someone rang up the day before yesterday and reported that Sam Laske was getting into mischief down here. And, although he doesn't belong to the Express, which by the way, employs only dinkum journalists, it seemed to those in authority just one of those occasions when all good men—Jack and me—rally to the aid of the party. Just note it down that we came here for the good of Sydney journalism."
Sergeant Adson looked at the speaker suspiciously, for a few moments, then turned again to face the spiritualist. But Medley interposed quickly. "By the way, Sergeant, there's another of the fraternity down here—and I don't mean a journalist. Got off the same train as we did. A short, stout, moon-faced woman. In fact, she got here before us. I've been wondering where she got to."
"Eh? What's that?" The police officer stared about the hall. "Where's she got to?" He turned to Medley. "You're sure she got here? There was no one about when we came through this room, was there?"
He glanced at his constables as he asked the question, and they shook their heads.
"No, I'm sure there was no one about, except Mr. Keston, and he met us at the hall door and told us what was happening in the garden."
"Then she got away when Keston went to meet you and I went to Sam's assistance," asserted Medley. "Now, where's that fair dame got to?"
"We'll soon find that out." The police officer issued his instructions. "Hardman, you stay here with your prisoner. Weston, you come with me. We'll comb the place for this woman." He swung round on Medley again. "Say, what's she like?"
"Short, stout—very stout—big round moon-face with a scatter of grey hair peeping under what you might take to be a modern edition of one of those coal-scuttle bonnets you see in old pictures. Dress, long and black, with quite a train at the back, the front part looking more like a doctor of divinity's gown than a woman's frock. Has a queer necklace of bits of stone and bones interspersed with small crystal-eyed skulls. Carries a long staff with a strange figure, half man and half goat on its head, and has for luggage a carry-all. Created quite a sensation on the train, I assure you—"
His eyes were wandering about the hall, and stayed: "Why, there's her luggage."
"Where?" The sergeant's gaze followed the line of the man's eyes.
"Eh, Weston, get it!"
The constable brought the carryall to the foot of the stairs, on which the sergeant had again seated himself. Without ceremony the sergeant loosened the straps and opened the case. For a few seconds he fumbled amid the contents.
"Whew! What's this?" His groping fingers closed on some big object. He dragged it from the carry-all and held it up. It was a bowl-shaped object of strange workmanship.
"Sergeant!" Leslie exclaimed in excitement. "It's—Yes, I believe it is! Let me look at it." She ran down the few steps to the hall and took the bowl from the police officer's hands. "Yes, if it had been made of gold instead of brass it would be real. It's Mexican!"
"Comes from Mexico, does it?" Sergeant Adson looked! at the bowl With grave suspicion. "What do you know of it, Miss Leslie?"
"I read an account of similar bowls in a magazine some little while ago," replied the girl. "It's a blood vessel—one of the temple utensils the Aztec priests used to catch the blood of their human sacrifices in. Ugh!"
She thrust the brass into the police officer's hands, with a little gesture of repugnance. "A sacrificial vessel!"
Adson examined it, inside and outside, curiously.
"I—I think it is only a copy, Sergeant." The girl said quietly. "I'm sure it isn't genuine. The article stated that the temple vessels were of gold, and I think the only metals they knew were gold, and possibly silver. Why, they had to edge wooden swords with volcanic rock, to fight with, because they had no hard metals. No, I'm certain this is only a copy of the real thing."
"Then—" Adson looked puzzled. "Say, what did an old dame like the one you describe want with a blood-containing vessel?"
No one answered, though three persons in the group round the sergeant were fairly certain they had an explanation in mind. But the explanations they had thought of were too horrible to put into words. For a moment longer the police officer held the vessel, in his hands, then dropped it into the carry-all, thrust down the cover, and kicked the container to where the constables stood.
"Keep an eye on that, Hardman," he commanded. "Weston and I will search this dump." He paused, scanning the faces in the circle, then spoke to Keston: "Say, Mr. Keston, you look as if you knew something about this woman."
"A bit, Sergeant." The journalist smiled quietly. "She's come under review in the police courts of Sydney, once or twice. She's well-known in Sydney. Fortune-teller, spiritualist medium, and all that rot."
"Yes?" Adson had his notebook out and was writing rapidly.
"Her name is or, rather, she calls herself, Nyall. That, I believe is a Victorian word meaning a mist—one of those dim mists that rise from low-lying lands during the very early hours of the morning. Her real name is Sarah Baters—Miss Sarah Baters, she claims to be a virgin unsullied, though she's been married. I don't know anything of her husband, but I believe he separated from her when she took up this fortune-telling stunt."
"Thanks." Sergeant Adson finished his notes. "I'll send this to Sydney, with the name and particulars of our friend there." He nodded to where Silas Martinger stood between his guards. "They should be able to dig up something about the pair of them. Come along, Weston!"
"What about us?" asked Keston as the two policemen were leaving the hall. "Can't we help?"
"You'll never search this house by your two selves," declared Leslie positively. "The place is a perfect wilderness, and anyone could keep out of your way without the slightest trouble."
Sergeant Adson halted abruptly. For some moments he stood, considering.
"Glad of your help," he said at length. "Let me see, there's four of us, without Martinger, and one of us has to guard him. There's four of you. That's seven for the search."
For a moment he stood uncertain looking at Leslie.
"Look here, Miss Leslie, there's something strange about this house, and I don't like you about. Suppose you get along home. We'll go on with the search and let you know what we find."
Leslie laughed. "Thank you, Sergeant. But you're forgetting I was sent down here by my newspaper to investigate. I can't do that if I sit at home. I'm a newspaper-man, now."
"A newspaper-woman," corrected the police officer, grinning "And that's two whole letters greater than a man. All right, Miss Leslie, have your own way; but keep out of trouble, please."
"Good," said Sam suddenly. "Why not pick teams, Sergeant? I'll take Miss Cantle, Keston or Constable Weston—"
"You'd better take both," replied the Sergeant. "That will leave me with one of my men and Mr. Medley." He turned to the constable. "Blow your whistle, Weston, if you see anything suspicious. I'll do the same if we want help."
"Any objections to my party taking the upper floors of the house?" asked Sam. "By the way, I've been over the lower floor and made a rough sketch of it. Might be useful to you." He searched his pockets and produced a piece of much crumpled paper. "Sorry for the creases, Sergeant, but you must blame friend Silas for them. He made them while we played in the garden."
Adson nodded indifferently, then became brisk and alert. "Now, get this, you fellows. I want that woman, but only to question. So far as I know she's done nothing for which I can hold her, unless I get Mr. Markham to charge her with being on these premises unlawfully. Now, get on with it!"
He moved to the passage on the right side of the great stairway, paused, swung round and again faced Silas Martinger. "Look here, my man," he said after a few moments staring fixedly at the man. "Why don't you save us and yourself a lot of trouble? You knew the Jay Bird, didn't you?"
"I have said," the man answered in his strange sombre tones.
"You have said that you knew him in the spirit. I say, you knew him in his body, in real life."
For long moments there was silence, then suddenly the spiritualist spoke, his voice quiet, yet filled with strange conviction. "I know the real name of the man you designate as the Jay Bird, but for the present I am commanded not to speak it. You, Sergeant Adson, know that name. Soon, very soon you will know much that is at present hidden from you."
"Then you know his—the Jay Bird's real name," exclaimed Adson quickly. "What more?"
The spiritualist closed his lips obstinately. The Sergeant shrugged and turned to rejoin his party, waiting beside the stairway.
"All right, Mr. Laske! Carry on. Remember, I've got nothing on that woman, but I've got to ask her a lot of questions."
Three-quarters of an hour later Sam led his search down to the hall to find Sergeant Adson waiting for him.
"No luck," reported Sam shortly. "I'll swear there is no one about upstairs. What about your search?"
"No sign of the woman, or anyone else, down here," growled the police officer angrily. "Where the devil—"
"She may have left the reception room where we last saw her and walked out of the front door," suggested Keston.
"I'll not believe that!" exclaimed the Sergeant, and Sam nodded assent. "From what Mr. Laske says, she was too mighty anxious to get into this house to leave it in a hurry." He swung round on Constable Hardman: "Seen anything of that damned doctor. He said he would follow us from Southbury within five minutes, and he's more than an hour overdue."
"Dr. Harris is in the garden, sir." Constable Hartman answered immediately. "He told me he had a blowout on the road and had trouble mending it."
"Good." Adson turned to the door of the reception room, then looked back: "Martinger have anything to say while we were away?"
"Not a word, sir."
"Well, he'll talk in Southbury, or I'll know the reason why. Glad the doctor got here, if late. Any signs of the ambulance?"
"Waiting outside, on the drive, sir."
"Good! I'll go and see the doctor." As Sergeant Adson turned again to the door it was pulled quickly open and a middle-aged, stout, good tempered looking man came into the hall. He carried a black bag in his hand.
"Oh, there you are Sergeant Adson. Hartman said you were searching the house when I arrived. Find anything?"
"Not a thing, doctor. There's a woman about here somewhere, but she seems to have hidden herself pretty thoroughly. What of the man in the garden, doctor?"
"Killed by a knife-thrust in the neck." Dr. Harris spoke in curt tones. "Been dead some hours. The best I can do for you at the moment is that he was killed somewhere between midnight and four o'clock this morning. I may be able to reduce that interval after the autopsy."
"That's good enough to work on, doctor," Adson smiled, in almost relief. "That's the first definite thing I've had on this case, so far. You'll let me have your report as soon as possible?"
"Tomorrow do? Good!"
Dr. Harris caught sight of Leslie, standing amid the group of journalists at the foot of the stairway, and went to her with outstretched hands. "Why, it's little Leslie Cantle," he exclaimed. "What are you doing here, girl?"
"I'm a journalist, doctor." The girl smiled at the surprised look that came on the medical man's face. "My newspaper sent me down here."
"Not on a murder case, surely." The doctor frowned. "I don't like that!"
"No." The girl was suddenly grave. "They sent me down here on the gold-find story. The murder happened after I arrived here."
"That's better!" Dr. Harris took the girl's hand and patted it paternally. "I don't like little girls mixed up with murders. Well, well, and you're a full-fledged journalist, running a story on your newspaper. And I knew you when you were just a little girl, running wild about the country, with pig-tails floating over your shoulders." He glanced abruptly at his watch, shook the girl's hand vigorously and turned to the door. "Well, I've got to get off. Come and see Mrs. Harris before you return to Sydney, Leslie. We've missed you quite a lot, little girl."
Before Leslie could do more than nod Dr. Harris had turned and was walking after Sergeant Adson, down the hall.
"Sergeant! The ambulance is outside. Please have the body taken into Southbury as soon as possible. I'm going now. Don't want to keep me for anything more? No? Good!"
He turned again to the group at the foot of the stairway.
"Well, goodbye, all of you. Don't forget to look us up, Leslie."
Picking up his bag, which he had deposited on one of the lower stairs, the doctor trotted out of the house, pausing on the top of the stone steps under the portico, to again wave farewell to Leslie.
"So, that's that!" Sam Laske turned to his newspaper-comrades. "Look here, I think we'd better have a talk over things. Miss Cantle, and gentlemen, please take your seats. Sorry I've nothing better than stone stair-treads to offer you."
Keston and Medley moved upstairs a few steps, and seated themselves on the middle of a stair-tread. Leslie sat on a lower step, her back to the balustrade, and Sam seated himself on the same step, on the opposite side. For a few seconds no one spoke.
"Well, folk," commenced Sam abruptly. "It looks as if things are now up to us. I like Adson and I think he's clever, but he's not getting anywhere on this murder."
"Looks like that," said Keston judicially.
Leslie and Medley nodded agreement.
"Right-o!" said Sam. "Now we've got to form some plan of campaign—that is if you Express people are going to work with us."
"Why not?" asked Medley. He glanced down at his wrist-watch. "Lor', it's after lunch-time and we're quite three-quarters of a mile away from the eats! I move that this conference adjourns for lunch. No good working on an empty tummy." Suddenly he stood up, and the others followed his example. From the reception room came Sergeant Adson, followed by the ambulance men bearing a shrouded stretcher. Then followed two constables.
"If it's to be eats," exclaimed Sam, when the little procession had passed the hall door. "I suggest that Keston and Medley bum a ride from the ambulance men to the hotel—that is, if you prefer riding to walking. I'm taking Les—Miss Cantle—down on my motor-cycle."
"Leslie," said the girl firmly.
"Leslie! All right. Off with you boys, or you'll have to run behind. We'll hold council after we're fed. No good talking ourselves to death, or we'll have The Great Absolom getting messages from us, from spirit land."
Keston and Medley ran through the door, in pursuit of the ambulance.
For a minute or so the girl and Sam remained in the great hall, then followed sedately. They stood on the steps, watching the ambulance van pick a way along the overgrown carriage drive, then went down to where the motor-cycle stood.
"I wonder what became of that woman, Sam?" said Leslie, as he was preparing the machine. "Somehow, I dislike leaving here until I know more."
"Oh, she probably got frightened at sight of so many police, and ran out of the house," The newspaper-man answered carelessly. "Here's the good old steed! Get aboard, Leslie. I'm hungry!"
"Sarah Baters never left that house," The girl answered meditatively. "She's somewhere in there—I know."
"Then where?" Sam glanced up at the front of the house. "Jove! what a size the place is!"
"Yes, and we said we'd searched it!" Leslie's tones were almost scornful of the searchers' efforts. "Why, when I was a little girl and lived here with my mother I used to get lost, sometimes. It's huge. I've often thought I'd like to come back one day and find out all its secrets."
"Secrets?" Sam was startled. He pressed the starting pedal. "You're right, Leslie. That old house has secrets—secrets we'll have to search for long to discover." He paused, swinging the machine in the direction of the main road.
"Yes?" The girl, perched on the padded luggage-carrier asked questioningly. Then, suddenly: "Sam, you never told me what you dreamed about last night?"
Sam did not reply. For the moment he devoted his attention to intricate steering between the overgrowth on the drive. Yet he thought tell Leslie his dreams? No, he could not do that—not yet, at all events. Perhaps later, if he found some evidence of some truth in those strange fantasies of the night.
Fantasies! The fantasies of an old, forgotten house, haunted by the sins of the very human people who during more than a hundred years had lived in it. Fantasies! Yet, were those dreams fantasies? Almost he shuddered. If those dreams were any indication of the real in life then there were bitter moments to be lived before he could speak of them to anyone!
WHEN Sam and Leslie arrived at the Barralong Hotel they found the two Sydney journalists seated on the bench under the bar-room window, each man holding affectionately a well-polished and apparently heavy large pewter pot. Sight of the hotel brought back to Sam's remembrance that while the Bart. had accompanied the police to Darrington House he had been missing from the conferences held there. He spoke his thoughts, and Medley at once assured him that Skirlington had been at the hotel when they arrived on the ambulance. The Bart. had stated that he had suddenly realised that he was responsible for feeding several large and hungry guests—and had then walked back to the hotel.
Leslie went immediately into the hotel by the private entrance while Sam, escorted by his companions of the press, went into the bar. He had hardly paid sufficient respects to a famous Southbury brewery when a maid entered the bar, announcing that lunch was ready.
The Bart., engaged at the sideboard, cocked a questioning eye when Sam entered.
"What's happening?" he asked.
"Lunch is, I hope," said Sam, significantly, glancing about the room and noted that Leslie was curled up on a lounge in the window.
"Oh, that woman—Nyall—has disappeared."
"Disappeared?" The Bart.'s brows lifted inquiringly.
"Just that—and that only. While we were engaged in the garden-court she floated off—somewhere. The police—we all of us, searched the house, but there wasn't a sign of her."
"Then—" Skirlington neglected his work for conversation. "Do you think she's in collusion with that man?"
"If they're pals they disguise the fact pretty well," interposed Keston. "They had quite a row in the hall before the police came, calling each other names and denouncing all brands of spiritualism except their own. They defamed guardian spirits and sheltering angels in a most libellous manner."
"Conference after lunch, please." Leslie uncurled herself and came to the table. "I'm hungry, and I don't want my attention distracted from that fact."
"Just like a woman," wailed Medley. "They never talk!"
Leslie made a face at the Express man and accepted the chair the Bart. held for her.
For minutes there was little said; then the sounds of a car drawing up before the hotel caught attention. Keston left the table and went to the window.
"Damn!" he said. "Say, Bart. why didn't you have this hotel built the right way round. All one gets from this window is a 'bootifulest' view of a very untidy yard."
"Get to it!" Skirlington looked up from the joint he was carving at the sideboard, pointing with his knife. "Get in my den; you'll see from there."
The newspaper-man passed into the other room. Almost immediately sounds of a car being driven away came on the air, and Keston re-entered the dining-room.
"Your face frighten them away?" asked Medley.
"Southbury police car, full of 'cops'. Went off toward Darrington House."
Keston ignored the inquiry.
"So?" Medley returned to his meal. "Adson said he was expecting reinforcements."
"He's got 'em. Half-a-dozen as stolid and unimaginative 'cops' as I've ever seen in the backblocks. Say, boys, we'll have to supply the brains here."
"How do you know that?" asked Leslie, "You hadn't time to get a view of their faces before they drove off."
"Back view was sufficient, m'dear." Keston renewed his attack on his plate's contents with renewed vigour. "Don't you know that rear views indicate temperament—and show the thickness of wood of which the articles are made?"
"Bosh!" said Sam. "Get on with your meal, Jack. Adson and his merry men will soon be here and then the Bart. will have to give them all his attention—or lose his license next year for neglecting his most important customers of the century. You can bet your sweet life Adson will—"
"Want his lunch."
The table party looked up to see the burly figure of the Sergeant in the doorway. He glanced at the Bart., half-apologetically. "Your barman sent me in here:"
"Sit down and don't talk," said Sam. "Brought your prisoner with you?"
"He's in the car, with his attendants."
"There's another carload of 'cops' on the road," interjected Medley, his mouth full.
"We met them on the road." Sergeant Adson went to the chair the Bart. indicated. "They're coming back as soon as they find room to turn the car." The police officer looked Sam. "I'm sending Martinger into Southbury."
"You'll feed the poor brute, first?" expostulated Keston.
"I will, and that's more than I'd do for any journalists that fall into my hands," grinned the Sergeant.
The Bart. crossed the room and opened the door of the room Keston had used to view the police-car. "My special den, Miss Leslie and gentlemen. Please make use of it. I must go to the kitchens and see to the feeding of hungry constables and prisoner. By the bye, who is staying at this hotel tonight?"
"My address is the Barrington Hotel and Darrington House," stated Sam. "Indefinitely."
"Same with us," exclaimed Keston and Medley, in unison.
"Got a bed for me, Bart.?" asked Adson. "I shall have to stay at Barralong for the present, unless one of the inspectors relieve me."
"Plenty of room," answered Skirlington, grinning. "This place was an old coaching halt, in colonial days. It's a perfect rabbit-warren, with rooms to shelter a small army."
"Good!" The police officer devoted his attention to his plate. "And say, I'll keep one of my men with me, until I know what the Superintendent intends."
Skirlington nodded, and went out the door. Keston pulled out a packet of cigarettes and passed them round the table. For minutes there was silence, except for the rattle of the police sergeant's knife and fork. Then Sam rose to his feet and went to the inner door.
"Come into the den, Leslie," he urged. "There's nothing interesting in watching a policeman feed, or journalists drink."
Arthur Medley stared at the closing door, a slight smile dawning on his lips.
"Another young and innocent life blighted," he sighed lugubriously. "It's sad to see a mere boy of thirty-three take the wrong road!"
In the den, Leslie went to the Morris chair before the diamond-paned casement windows. Sam closed the door and sauntered to the windows, leaning against an angle of the wall and looking down on the girl.
"What's the story?" he asked, at length.
"What story?" Leslie looked, up quickly.
"Only that you know so much about Darrington House and Barralong that there must be a story somewhere." The newspaper-man spoke seriously.
"You mean—" The girl hesitated. "Yes, I understand. You never met me before this morning, at the old house. Yet I've seen you, and more than once, Mr. Sam Laske, of the Sydney Daily Post."
"That's my fault, for being so conspicuously good-looking," stated Sam sadly. "People point me out as one of the major sights of the city!" He paused, smiling down at the girl. "But you don't get out of telling the story by paying me a compliment. So?"
"I've lived quite a lot of my life at Barralong." Leslie spoke suddenly, a slight frown coming between her eyes. "I used to live at Darrington House, many years ago."
"The Bart. told me that Jess Markham used to live there."
"Mr. Markham is my step-father." The girl hesitated. "Sam. I don't want this published. I'm not proud of the life I used to live in Barralong and should like to forget it, if possible. I don't like my step-father."
"Haven't seen the feller, so can't say," observed Sam judicially. "Still, I'm prepared to take your word, that he's not a likeable chap."
"You won't be long before you come across him, if you stay in Barralong," said Leslie gravely. "And Sam, when you do meet him, I want you to keep your temper. He's—he's—"
"Not likeable—just so." Sam spoke easily. "I'll remember. Now the preliminaries are finished. Well? I heard Markham lived at Darrington House, and owns it."
"I own Darrington House." The girl flushed. "You see Sam, it's like this—"
"Full speed ahead!" Sam hooked a chair toward him with his foot and sat astride it, facing the girl. For some minutes Leslie was silent, staring thoughtfully out of the window, Then, without turning to Sam, she started to speak:
"Darrington House was built by Darringtons in the early days of Australian history. It is stated that Captain Rufus Darrington obtained from Governor Phillips the grant of the land about here, on condition that he built the road between Waitamine and Southbury. Of course—" The girl interrupted herself, hastily. "Of course there were no townships about here then and nothing between Sydney and the Murray River."
"Well?" asked Sam, when the girl paused.
"Rufus Darrington built the house and the road and cleared the land and ran sheep and cattle on it—and all with the work of the convicts the Governor sent here to build the road. Then he cultivated some of the land and grew wheat and other things for the use of his household and servants—for Sydney was too far away for them to cart things from there. Rufus Darrington lived at the old house and became very wealthy, keeping an almost vice-regal state and entertaining largely and lavishly. But he was very cruel—I have heard some awful stories of his treatment of the convicts he obtained from the Government, on various pretexts. So arbitrary and cruel was he that at length the Governor had to take notice of the many tales that got to his ears. He summoned Rufus Darrington to Sydney to answer certain charges. Darrington went to Sydney, but before the inquiry started he returned home and refused to go back to Sydney. Soldiers were sent by the Governor to bring him to Sydney, and I understood he successfully withstood a siege at Darrington House."
"But, where do you come in this, Leslie?" asked Sam. "Captain Rufus Darrington had a large family."
Leslie took no notice of Sam's interruption.
"There appears to have been a curse on him and his sons, for not one of them died a natural death. One family tale tells of when Darrington House was captured by bushrangers, and everyone of the household was shot. It happened, however, that Mrs. Darrington and her two youngest sons were in Sydney at the time, or the family would have become extinct. Anyway—" The girl sighed. "As the years passed the family dwindled, in numbers and wealth, and at last came down to one direct descendant—my mother. She married a Mr. Cantle. Long before that my grandfather—the last of the Darringtons—had moved to Sydney. Grandfather engaged in business and Mr. Cantle was one of his customers who used to visit his home. That is how he met mother. They married, and were very, very happy."
Leslie's voice dwindled to silence. Sam, his arms folded on the back of the chair sat watching her. Almost he could read the thoughts passing through her mind. To a woman the history of a family is far more real than it is to any man. Women think in terms of children, who have been, who are, and who are to be. They live in the histories of those who have suffered and born through the ages.
"Mr. Cantle died?" suggested the young man.
"He died young. I was only three years old, then." Leslie came back to her story with a start. "I hardly remember him. Mother and I went to live with grandfather, when father died. You see—" she hesitated. "Grandfather had always been obsessed with the history of the Darringtons, and mother first, and then father came under his influence. The three of them had the determination to regain the estates the former Darringtons had sold. Every bit of money they could get was devoted to that purpose. Father became as crazy as grandfather and mother. They bought land, and land, and everything was invested in mother's name for—" Again the girl hesitated. "They all hoped mother would have a son who would take the name 'Darrington' and be the owner of the family fortunes. Then father died, and grandfather, who was a business man and not a farmer, went on accumulating land, and leaving it unoccupied. He had the ideal of buying back all the lands and then forming a fund to reclaim them—"
"Yes?" Sam spoke gently, when the girl paused.
"Mother was much more practical than either father or grandfather, and a year or two before his death persuaded him to lease the lands—"
"That's where Mr. Markham comes into the story?" suggested Sam.
"Yes." Leslie nodded. "When grandfather agreed to lease the lands his lawyers found Mr. Markham. He took the lease and went to live at Darrington House—and grandfather, mother and I used to come down on visits to him, and to see how the estate was progressing. He is a good farmer—I must say that—and professed to be very fond of me, although I didn't like him. Then grandfather died and mother, feeling that she was not in robust health and wishing to do the best for me—agreed to marry Mr. Markham—"
The girl dropped her head on her hands, sobbing softly.
"Your mother married Mr. Markham and brought you to live with them at Darrington House," prompted Sam.
"Mother knew she had not many years to live." The girl spoke slowly. "She thought that Mr. Markham, professing to be so fond of me, would be a good guardian of my interests. I know she told him that I must inherit the lands and the house—it was an obsession with her that only a Darrington could inherit, but she gave him a life lease of the lands on very easy terms. But when mother died, the house became my property, with a charge on the lease-money for the rates and taxes, and all that. That is why Mr. Markham built the house over the ridge."
"Then you own the old house now, and will own the lands as well, when Mr. Markham dies." Sam felt heavy at heart. Leslie would be a very rich girl one day, far above the reach of a mere journalist. He put the thought from him.
"But, Leslie, I understood from the Bart., that Mr. Markham was married and had a family?"
"He married about a year after mother died."
"And, having children—possibly a boy—resents you being heir to the lands he had brought into cultivation again?"
The girl did not answer. "And because of that resentment, your life in Mr. Markham's home was not happy," pursued Sam relentlessly. "I suppose your step-mother hated you for being between her children and lands and money."
"I would have shared with them." The girl straightened proudly. "I have always recognised that they have rights. I have never interfered with Mr. Markham, and have always given him every possible credit for making real the dreams my father and mother held."
Sam nodded. He stared speculatively out of the window. Much that Leslie had just told him he had gathered through chance words and phrases from her and Skirlington previously. Much of what she had told him fitted into the jigsaw puzzle that occupied his mind. If he could connect a few more pieces, fit the murder of the Jay Bird into the history of Darrington House he would be far on the road to the completion of his puzzle.
"What is Jess Markham like?" he asked abruptly.
The girl looked up quickly. For some reason her glances followed Sam's through the window.
"There is Mr. Markham," she said coldly. "The man coming across the waste ground towards the hotel.
"I suppose he is coming for me."
"Then you went home before you came to Darrington Houses this morning?" asked Sam.
"I didn't come from Sydney in these." The girl smilingly indicated her riding breeches, "I went home and changed, while the Bart. was getting the breakfast things together."
"The Bart. brought you to the old house?"
"To the drive entrance," corrected the girl. "We guessed that you had overslept, for the Bart. expected you to be at the hotel when he got back from the station. As you weren't here for breakfast, we thought it would be fun to take your breakfast to you."
The newspaper-man stared out of the window at the man striding towards the hotel. He saw a man of medium height, sturdily built and in the prime of life. He moved easily and athletically, in spite of his heavy boots and rough clothing. As he came nearer, Sam saw a big, red face under the wide-flapping hat, and read thereon a story of unbridled will and unchained passions.
Markham came directly to the hotel, entering through the bar door. A short interval and clattering boots sounded in the hotel hall; then the door of the room was flung back violently and a big voice dominated the soft murmur of voices in the dining-room that penetrated the closed door.
"So you're there!" Markham stood in the doorway glaring at the girl. "I told you to be home for lunch."
"I beg your pardon?" said Sam mildly, not changing his position. "Is it correct to enter a room with your hat on, when a lady is present?"
"Who the devil are you?" The farmer flung round on the young man. "I'm talking to-"
"A lady." Sam's voice was very mild. "I thought you had forgotten that?"
"I'm talking to my daughter—"
"Your step-daughter:—and a lady," corrected Sam.
"I'll—" The man stuttered with rage. "Damn you. I'll—"
"Surely not before a lady—and a lady journalist?" The newspaper-man's voice was very cool. "I might also inform you that you are interrupting. Miss Cantle is working for the Express and has to get her copy to her editor without delay."
For a moment Sam thought the man was going to attack him. He stuttered with rage, exploding in short cackling noises that were indistinguishable as words. The riding switch he carried in his right hand moved up ominously. Yet something in the young man's careless, yet watchful, attitude, signalled caution to the infuriated brain.
"Get home—you." The farmer turned to his stepdaughter. "And get this—this damned newspaper nonsense has to stop. I'm not going to have you traipsing about the country in riding breeches with a lot of city fools."
Sam flushed. His grip on the back of his chair tightened, until his knuckles stood out whitely. His glance went past the farmer and he saw Skirlington standing, in the dining-room, doorway.
"Skirlington," said Sam, still in the same cool voice, "will you be so good as to inform me who this oaf is?"
"I'm Jess Markham," The farmer strode further into the room. "Who're you?"
"I am Sam Laske, and I represent the Sydney Daily Post, if the information is of service to you. More, I am down here on business, on a story connected with Darrington House—if that further information is also of interest."
"Darrington House?" The man stared. "What story can there be about that house that is of value to a newspaper? I own it."
"That, alone is a story," answered Sam gravely, and the two journalists crowding in the doorway behind the Bart. sniggered. "It may interest you to know, Mr. Markham that a man was murdered there last night."
"Murdered?" Jess Markham's ruddy face blanched. He strove to regain his former aggressiveness. "I don't believe it!"
"Then I will assure you Mr. Laske is speaking the truth." Sergeant Adson, big and burly, pushed past the throng in the doorway into the room. "I am Sergeant Adson, of Southbury, in charge of the case."
"But—" Markham paused suddenly. "Who are these men?" He pointed to the two journalists in the doorway.
"Sydney journalists," replied Adson shortly. His voice showed his dislike of the farmer.
"They've been trespassing up at the house." The farmer's red face assumed a deeper hue. "I won't have that!" He swung again to Sam. "If I catch you up there, I'll-"
"Run for your life," completed the newspaper-man contemptuously. "Shoo, boy! There's daylight ghosts there!" His tone changed and he stared straight at the farmer. "Let's understand each other, Markham. I shall be at Darrington House, and so will be my brother journalists, as often as we like and the police permit. Get that! You state you own the house. That is a lie. I'm not going to mince matters with you. You are lying, and you know you are lying. You've had your own way with the Darrington estates for years. Well, that ends now. Unless—"
He looked round for Leslie, but she had disappeared. A quick glance out of the window showed the girl crossing the waste land before the hotel, towards the farm gates. Sam was puzzled for a moment, then again faced the farmer.
"Get this Markham, I don't like your attitude toward other people. You're a natural bully, and it's time someone called your bluff and put you in your place. You don't own Darrington House, and you know that. What you do own, and what you've bullied others into ceding to you, I don't know. But, if any of us have any trouble with you—if we hear of you bullying Miss Cantle, I'll have a few inquiries made in the city. I can get all I want from Mr. Peter Darrington's will, and your late wife's will, and the registered lease of the estate—and I think that information, in the hands of a good lawyer will prove particularly uncomfortable—for you."
Flushed with passion, Jess Markham stepped towards the journalist, his whip raised.
Sergeant Adson moved forward, stopping before the farmer. Sam, not finished with the man, side-stepped and again faced his opponent.
"Take my tip, Mr. Jess Markham," he said levelly. "Keep out of this. You've enough to do with your farming—and your accounts. Perhaps you understand what I mean now—you don't seem to be able to absorb much unless it is very straight speaking, though. Any trouble from you and I'll see you get your share. That's a promise!"
"And I'll back Mr. Laske," said Sergeant Adson, frowning.
"And I'm standing in on this." The Bart. moved into the room. "We've had quite a lot of trouble in this district with you, Jess, and now there will be no more. Take things easy in the future, or you'll tumble into trouble that may break you. I know sufficient for that!"
"Three cheers for the Australian Journalists' Association," called Medley, softly from the door.
"Cock-a-doodle-do!" crowed Keston, in the dining-room, behind Medley. He raised his pot of beer high in the air over the heads of those before him. "Here's health, Jess. Good health—and may you have the sense to dodge trouble when you see it coming!"
FOR more than a minute Jess Markham stared at the circle of hostile faces surrounding him, amazement at his futility, giving place to realisation of his impotency. Still he stuttered, blustered, then became silent.
During the years he had lived at Barralong he had come to consider his will law. He had found that if he blustered and fumed, in most cases others gave way to him, for the sake of peace. On the few occasions when he had met with deliberate opposition, he had used his natural brutality to enforce his commands.
Now he found himself opposed by four men who did not bluster, or raise their voices, who did not show signs of being aggressive, but who insisted on their rights in common law and fairness. They made no talk of physical violence—that he would have understood, and met. The statements they made were logical and passionless—and he had an uncomfortable conviction would be carried out in their entirety.
He felt as if he had reverted to the days of his youth and again stood before his father—tongue-tied through an hereditary obedience. Jess Markham was the son of a Gippsland farmer of the old school. His youth had been spent in the discipline of the small farm, varied by broken excursions to the local school, where he learned a smatter of what pleased him during the intervals when he could be spared from the farm work. In his home he had been taught that his father was not only judge but executioner and that there was no appeal from his will.
He grew up to believe that his lot in life was to labour from before sunup to sunset, and to be grateful for the food and clothing, supplemented by a few grudgingly-doled shillings when he went to the township. He knew nothing of larger communities and little of the value of money. Credit to him was that doled out to his parents by the local storekeeper. He saw his mother bowing before the will of the household autocrat, not daring to buy the material for a new dress, or even a yard of ribbon, without express permission from his father.
He watched his sisters take their share of the farm work, until bullied into marriages of submission with neighbouring farmers who met with parental approval. During the days of his adolescence, he dreamed of the future, when he, too, would own a farm, and direct the lives of those who lived and worked with him.
On the rare occasions when his father deigned to converse with him as man to man, he learned that the farmers were the backbone of the country, and suffered many oppressions. More, he gathered that farmers were of two classes: Those like his father, who worked hard on the lands, and those who farmed through managers, themselves residing in the cities, where they were in close touch with a nebulous body called "The Government" who gave to their friends what they refused, in common honesty, to the "real farmers."
About this time he gained from his father the concession of running stock on the family lands. He had a natural aptitude for the work, in spite of having to do it after his father's work on the farm had finished each day. Gradually he added to his holdings, until he found that he had stock and capital sufficient to occupy a small farm he leased in the district. With capital and the knowledge that he was a landowner, came the desire to see more of his country.
His father was agreeable to look after his interests while he visited Melbourne. But Melbourne did not satisfy his aspirations. He wanted to see Sydney, the greatest city on the island continent. Brooking no opposition, he went to Sydney. In the capital of New South Wales chance brought the young Gippslander in contact with Peter Darrington, then reaching to the sum of his years. Peter Darrington took a great fancy to the strong, straight-limbed rosy-cheeked country lad, who bore with him always the scent of the fields and bushland.
Darrington took him to his home and introduced him to his daughter and son-in-law. Gradually he was admitted to the interminable discussions on the Darrington lands and, at the request of the Darrington family, visited them. He coveted the wide spaces that were lying idle, yet could not immediately conceive means whereby he could obtain them.
Two years after Jess Markham visited Sydney, Peter Darrington wrote to him on a suggestion of his daughter that the Darrington estates should be leased. Jess answered the letter by immediately journeying to Sydney and offering himself as lessee of the property. His offer was promptly accepted, terms very advantageous to the young farmer were quickly arranged, and young Markham took up his residence at the old Darrington House, putting into repair such of its vast rooms as he saw necessary.
Peter Darrington's death suggested the plan that gradually grew in Markham's mind. He saw in the owner of the lands he coveted a slender, frail woman, with one female child. He knew his strength and ruthlessness. His family training had taught him that females should not expect to own land. Contemptuous of the woman's weakness, he married her, believing that when she was his wife he would have no difficulty in forcing her to make over to him the title to the Darrington lands.
With Mrs. Cantle he met unexpected difficulties. In all matters, except the succession of the estate, she bowed meekly to his will. But on that one question he found himself confronted by an inflexible will. The Darrington lands must pass to a Darrington—and the sole remaining Darrington was her daughter, Leslie. Years of ceaseless arguments sapped but the woman's strength, not her will. She died, and Jess Markham found himself in no better position regarding the estates than before his marriage. He was but the lessee of the lands, and the owner was a frail young child—and a girl child at that!
Within a month of his wife's death, a deep hatred of the child welled in Jess Markham's heart. Unable to bear the sight of her in silence he sent her to a cheap Sydney boarding-school. Yet still his hatred of the Darringtons grew. He hated the house they had built, and determined to build a house of his own.
The house built, he married the daughter of a farmer in the Southbury district. Marriage, the sundering of all ties that bound him to the Darringtons did not abate the growing hatred of the family. When his wife conceived of a son the envy and hatred grew unbearable. All his thoughts tended to supplanting Leslie Cantle with the son of his body.
But now he found an obstacle of his own making. Absence had faded the fear the girl had formerly held for him, and in school-life she had grown independent and self-reliant. He ordered her to return to his new house, and she refused, staying in Sydney and obtaining work.
Markham was alarmed. A degree of cunning caused him to seek the girl and offer something he believed to be apologies. Leslie, bred in the Darrington faith, was willing to patch up a truce, so that she would have the liberty to visit the cradle of her family. Yet she persisted in the courses she had set for herself, and finally won a position on the Sydney Daily Express.
Much of this history, Sam Laske had learned from Leslie, during the talks he had had with her that day. Something he had learned from remarks the Bart. had dropped, when speaking of the farmer. More he gathered during the present talk with the man. Now he faced Markham in a cold fury that showed only in the tenseness of his lips and the hardening of the lines of his face.
The verbal storm slackening, he looked about the room for Leslie, then remembered he had seen her speeding across the road, towards Markham's home. He turned again to the man, to find that now all thoughts of violence had disappeared from the farmer's mind, and his one idea was to retreat to the fastnesses of his farmland.
"You come on my lands, and I'll sue you," threatened Markham, still trying to force a bluff. "I'll have you in prison, you—"
"Now, Mr. Markham!"
Sergeant Adson placed a pacifying hand on the big man's am. "That's not the way to talk. Darrington House is in the charge of the police at the moment and not even you will be allowed there until we have solved our problems. Mr. Laske found the murdered man—"
"Why don't you tell the truth that he murdered him?" shouted the farmer, his anger blazing anew. "Oh, I've heard that story." He turned to Sam, shaking his riding whip in his face. "You can't get away with it, you young blackguard. Murdered the man for a billy of gold—and that's my gold, I'll tell you! I own every stick and stone on the Darrington property. That gold's mine!"
He swung to face the police officer. "And let me tell you this, Adson: you go straight into Southbury and fetch me that gold. I'll not trust it in the care of your police. You'd steal it—you'd—"
"Bluff!" Sam interjected with cold anger. "All right, Markham, I'll call your bluff. You've said a lot, but you've learned nothing—not even when to hold your tongue. I'm telephoning my office, asking my editor to send a reporter to the Register-General's offices to get that information. I'm going to have properly attested papers sent down here to show that you do not own one single foot of Darrington land, or house. That you've forfeited your lease by non-compliance with its terms. Now, get out, and if there's one more peep out of you, or you interfere with Miss Cantle, and I'll have you arrested for threatening assault, until I can have your mind inquired into and see you locked up as a dangerous lunatic."
Jess Markham's sudden and angry movement toward Sam was checked by Sergeant Adson and the Bart. who together stepped in front of the furious man.
With a motion to Sam to remain silent, Adson gently urged the now foaming farmer from the room.
"Great!" Keston threw himself in the Morris chair. "What a scene. I say, Sam, I wouldn't indulge in any night walks in the vicinity of Barralong, if I were you. Old farmer Markham will nail you, if you do—and I haven't any wish to write up the sudden and mysterious death of a brother journalist. Say, what a temper!"
"Oh, damn him!" Sam swung savagely on his friends. "I'm going to do just what I threatened. Mac shall send someone down to the Registrar-General's, and then you will find what I've guessed is true. Markham's just a common swindler. He's got it written all over him."
"Plenty of 'em about, m'boy," said Medley lazily. "And they all eat little girls—dozens of 'em, though they prefer widows and orphans. Solomon Birder was a connoisseur—or should I have said, epicure—in that line. Swallowed hundreds whole, I believe. Still, that's other people's business, not mine. What I've got on hand is the Jay Bird, his famous pot of gold, and his murder. Now, what about it?"
"Yes, what about it, Sam?" Keston turned to his newspaper-comrade. "You lead on this story. What's our next move?"
Sam turned, moodily, to the window, and did not answer.
"Back to Darrington House, I suggest," continued Keston.
"Walk?" inquired Medley.
"Sam's got a motor-bike." Arthur Medley started to whistle:
"Daisy, Daisy—" he hummed, after whistling a few bars. "No, Jack, m'boy, if you think you're going to sit on my knees, or I on your bony carcase—"
"Sam can walk," suggested Keston, in an injured voice. "Sure, you don't think I want you as close to me as all that!"
Sam Laske turned suddenly from the window: "Sam Laske won't walk. When Mac sent you here he should have sent you in a proper means of conveyance. That's the worst of that old fool. He thinks all places are Sydney streets with a 'wait here for trams' sign on every corner."
"Shut up that squabbling, you two," ordered Medley. "Jack, have you forgotten Tinker Jones—who got that moniker through tinkering all his spare time, and more, with his old bus. Well, he's in Southbury—news-editor of the Daily. What about borrowing the Bart.'s car, running into Southbury and borrowing Tinker's microbe car?"
"That puts to-day's work on Sam's shoulders," objected Keston.
"It's there already," snapped Sam, without turning from the window.
"Oh, if he feels like that!" Keston spoke judicially. "Yes, I could see something, for once, that had not a disagreeable likeness to wheat—and more wheat—and wheat. Say, just a few bricks and mortar, on end, and perhaps a shiny brass rail before a city pubbery." He glanced at the moody back blocking up one of the windows. "What is to become of Sam, though?"
"There's a large-sized police sergeant in the offing, complete with uniform, stripes and all that. They say policemen are good at looking after nursemaids, then why not at looking after nursemaids' charges?"
"Right! Now, what about the inquest?"
"Adson told me, the day after tomorrow, in Southbury," said Sam, without turning from the window.
"Day after tomorrow! You'll be wanted, Sam, finder of the cadaver, and all that."
"Suppose so. If you're not back with the car, I'll run in on my cycle."
"That's the finishing touches to one of the most intricate and interesting plots I've ever heard," declared Medley gravely. "Understand, Keston? Sam's bike has been requisitioned by the Crown for the conveyance of an important witness—to wit, Sam Laske. Run along, dear boy, and ask the Bart. for the loan of that fascinating antique in which he brought us from the station this morning. We'll guarantee to return her, so long as wheels adhere to body, if we have to tow her back between Tinker's equally interesting example of pre-motor days."
Keston rolled lazily out of the chair in which he sprawled. On his feet, he asked: "And what will little Sammy do while we are engaged in the arduous task of urging the Bart.'s reluctant iron steed in the direction of the Murray, Southbury, and beer?"
"Mummy's little Sammy will be a good boy and keep away from the vicinity of the big, bad, Markham wolf," yawned Medley. "After all, Jack, he's been away from our loving care for two whole days and three nights, and when we again recaptured him we found that he had only acquired one fair lady, one corpse, and two spiritualists, one so dud that he couldn't foresee that he was going to be arrested to-day."
Medley strolled from the room, followed after a few seconds, by Keston.
For a while Sam remained gazing moodily out of the window, then turned and started to pace the room. His problems were becoming involved—Leslie Cantle and her affairs were involved in it. The murder of the Jay Bird, and the location of the place from where the swaggie had brought the billy of gold were simple factors beside the later problems. Jess Markham and Leslie Cantle! That involved two wills and a lease. He must have them looked up and the substance of them telegraphed to him—old Mac. would see to that! But, within the murder of the man who was once known as Solomon Birder and Leslie Cantle's affairs intruded two men—Frederick Getthring and Arthur Parkinson. Memory of the men had been slow bridging the intervening years, but little glimmers of light were dawning.
The Jay Bird and his pot of gold, Leslie Cantle, Jess Markham, and the Darrington property! Did Getthring and Parkinson also connect with the old house? He knew well they connected with the Jay Bird and his strange find of gold. And—then there was his dream. In what way did that dream fit into his puzzle?
Of the dream, his recollections were vague. In it were a fortune, a dead man and a girl, all mixed up in tantalising confusion. It was not his fortune, he knew that. It was Leslie's fortune he had dreamed of, and before the dream had ended he had opened his eyes and saw her looking at him. Then, what was her fortune? Darrington House and the lands that had once been her ancestors'? That was probably her fortune—but then why had it appeared in his dream floating on a strange black river that flowed high, yet was not held within banks? That he could not understand. He wanted more information—and if he held the faintest influence in the great city, four hundred miles north of where he paced, he would get it.
Turning in his stride, he left the room and sought the telephone.
A quarter of an hour later he walked from the hotel on to the main road. Old Mac. was a great stick. He knew much of the secret history of the State, and most things that happened in the city of Sydney. Mac. well remembered Peter Darrington, and said that he had known little Mrs. Cantle. He had appeared intrigued when Sam told him that Darrington's grand-daughter was mixed up in the problem he was trying to solve. He had become almost sympathetic when told of Leslie's cruel step-father. Mac. had promised to get a reporter on the job, on the run, and wire the whole story down to Barralong as soon as possible.
While Sam hesitated on the road, he heard the sounds of a motor-engine starting in the hotel yard. As he looked in that direction, a car came out of the open gate and turned in the direction of Southbury. Keston and Medley were in the car and waved gaily as they passed him.
Hardly had the two journalists left the township, when another car came out of the hotel yard. In this car sat Martinger and his escort of police.
Sergeant Adson sat next the driver. Sam was surprised.
"Back again tonight," called Adson as the car headed southwards.
"Here! Stop!" Sam ran after the slowing car. "What about Darrington House, Adson? Are you going to leave that unguarded?"
"Constable Weston's there. There's nothing for anyone to take," replied the police officer.
"Any objections to me going up there?" continued Sam.
"What for?" Adson grinned. "To find a billy of gold?"
"You'd claim half of it, if I did find one," snapped Sam. "No, I want Nyall, and another look-see about the place. I'm not satisfied."
"All right." Sergeant Adson nodded, after a moment's thought. "I'll be back by tea time, and we'll talk things over."
"We will." Sam spoke ominously. He leaned over the car-door. "Look here, Adson, I don't trust that fellow, Markham. Give me a chit to your man up there that he's not to be allowed to enter the house on any pretext. Between ourselves, I've telephoned to Sydney for details of the property and the contents of the wills, of Darrington and Mrs. Cantle. I've got the idea that when I get my answers you'll invite Markham to pay you an extended visit in Southbury."
"So?" Adson's brows lifted. He tore a page from his notebook and scribbled a few lines. "Give that to Weston, and we'll discuss the other matter when I get back. Get ahead, Tom!"
Sam waited on the road until the police car surmounted the hill and disappeared beyond the crest. Then he went into the bar-room. The Bart. was behind the counter, and smiled when he saw the newspaper-man enter.
"Well?" he asked. "Well?"
Sam lounged against the bar. "Oh, yes! A small well of beer—if you're selling it by the well now. And you take a big well for yourself, and charge it up to me."
Thirty seconds later Sam placed a half-emptied tankard on the counter, and sighed.
"Just so!" observed the Bart. "I feel like sighing also, when I think of farmer Markham."
Sam nodded. "Do you want to be pulling beer all the afternoon?" he asked.
"Not particularly. Why?"
"If you don't want that hard labour, then keep your speech off that man."
Skirlington nodded. He refilled the pots. "My mistake—and I pay for it. This on the house." Again occurred a short, satisfying silence.
"What's on now, Laske?" asked the Bart.
"I'm going up to Darrington House. There's something funny about there—besides the woman who calls herself Nyall."
"Lord! I'd forgotten her!"
"I haven't, although she seems good at disappearing from people's thoughts. She can't be far away and I'm going to find her, and then she's going to answer quite a lot of questions. I can promise you that!"
Hands in pockets, Sam turned from the bar and sauntered out on the road. Should he go to the rear of the hotel and fetch his cycle from the coach house? Then he decided he didn't want the "chug-chug" of the engine going before him, a fair advertisement of his presence and, thrusting his hands in his pockets, he squared his shoulders and set out up the road.
The sun was hot, but a cool north-wind blew sufficiently strong to temper the heat. Sam trudged doggedly on. He came to the belt of trees and sat down in a shady patch.
For some time he sat upright, conning his problems, then leaned back against a tree, finally slipping to the ground, and into sleep. How long he slept he did not know. Not long, he thought afterwards He was awakened by the sounds of a motor engine on the road. Leaning to one side he had a fair view of the highway.
The car drew nearer. It was coming from the south and not very fast, although noisily. Some farmer's bus, thought Sam lazily. They usually rattle and bump all over the road! He watched curiously as the car drew level, then suddenly and silently rolled over on the ground, under some scrub. Another roll, and he was on his hands and knees, crawling quietly towards the road. He had recognised the two men in the car: Jess Markham and Arthur Parkinson!
Sam was certain they had not seen him where he lay in the bush, for they had been talking earnestly! Sam rose to his feet and going a few yards on to the road, watched after the car. Presently it slowed and turned into the bush, just about where the newspaper-man estimated the Darrington House drive to be.
Running lightly, Sam covered the few hundred yards that separated him from the Darrington House drive. On the carriage drive he moved cautiously, ready at any moment to plunge into concealment in the bushland. He did not want them to see him, yet he wanted to keep watch on them. A few yards before he came to the semi-clearing around the house, Sam heard the sounds of the motor again, and dived into the bush. Peering cautiously from behind a tree-trunk, he saw the car pass. This time there was only one man seated in it—Jess Markham. Arthur Parkinson had stayed at Darrington House! For what purpose?
THROUGH a confused welter of ideas in Sam Laske's mind stood out one fact. That Jess Markham, on leaving the hotel, had gone home, got out his car and driven Parkinson to Darrington House. But, where had Parkinson come from? Not from the railway station, for there had been no train stopping at Barralong, from Southbury, since the early morning train. An earlier Southbury train pulled in at the little wayside station during the afternoon, but that was not due for another hour or more. It appeared certain that the newspaper-proprietor had not come from Southbury in his own car, for in that case he would not have driven up to Darrington House in Jess Markham's shaky old Ford. Then, he could only suppose that Parkinson had come to Markham's house earlier in the day, and the two men had travelled on to Darrington House in Markham's car, to avoid any farm-side comment.
Why had Parkinson come to Barralong? Why had he gone up to the old house? Sam had the very definite opinion that he could not trust the Southbury man. He knew that Parkinson would sell him out without any compunction, if he could find any advantage to himself in so doing. For the moment the journalist wondered if it really had been Parkinson in the car, for his eyes had been full of sleep at the moment of the car's passing.
Almost he decided to return to the hotel and telephone Parkinson at his newspaper-office. He had an excuse—that Sergeant Adson was on his way to the city with a prisoner. He shook his head. He might do that later, but first he would go to the old house and see if the man was there. A word with Constable Weston and the delivery of the sergeant's note, and any object the newspaper-proprietor had in secretly visiting Darrington House would be immediately checkmated.
Yet, why should not the man come to Barralong? He might have interests in the district. Sam recognised that if Parkinson had been alone in the car he would not have questioned his right to be there. He would not questioned his right to go to Darrington House, although he might have resented it, as interfering with the assignment to himself to cover the story of the Jay Bird and his find of gold. That was all, except...Unless Parkinson had come to Barralong during the morning hours he could not have known of the Jay Bird's death, he could not have known of incidents that alone would give cause for his visit to the old house.
Jess Markham had only learned of the swaggie's death in the hotel. He had appeared overwhelmed with the news—and had left immediately for his home. Had he gone home immediately, to inform the Southbury newspaper-proprietor of his new knowledge? Who should Parkinson have visited at Jess Markham's home that day? That was another question to which Sam could not find a satisfactory answer. At his interviews with Parkinson, the man had not indicated any special interest in Barralong, or in the Darrington House. Surely, if there had been no reason for concealment the man would have mentioned to him, when he gave him the assignment to write up the Jay Bird story, that he knew Jess Markham, the reputed owner of the house—a man who could have done much to make the story more effective.
And still another puzzle. If Parkinson had come to Jess Markham's house that morning, he must have come by road, in his own car. The Bart. and the reporters had been at the station when the Southbury train had set them down. Then, if his expensive city car was at Markham's, why had the two men travelled to Darrington House in Markham's rattle-boned Ford? The questions irked and puzzled Sam, for he could not find answers to any of them.
Suddenly, into the newspaper-man's mind sprang a new and totally unexpected question. If Parkinson was on terms of intimacy with Markham and interested in Darrington House, could that be linked up with the Jay Bird mystery? If so, then in addition to Getthring and Parkinson, whom he knew to have been associated with Solomon Birder, he had to add the name of Jess Markham to his list of questionable facts.
Parkinson, Getthring, Markham and the Jay Bird! Three of them important business men in the Southbury district, associates of the Jay Bird who, in the name of Solomon Birder, had fled from bankruptcy proceedings which would have proved his financial dealings fraudulent.
Solomon Birder, who as the Jay Bird, had come to Darrington House. For what reason? As a refuge, or because in the old house he knew some secret was hidden that would give him again the wealth and luxury he craved and was used to? Then, if Solomon Birder had some secret at Darrington House, then it was possible his old associates, Getthring and Parkinson were interested. If that was right, then Sam realised that the two men had for some years watched the old financier, trusting to luck of some form to make them participants; that the theory would be, unless the Jay Bird had taken them into his confidence—and Sam did not believe that. His new theory held, for he was certain Getthring and Parkinson had formed the association with Markham. The farmer had not known that Darrington House had been a hide-out of the absconding financier.
Sam shrugged, thrust theory from him and, thrusting his hands into his pockets, strode up the drive to Darrington House. He was determined that before night fell he would know more of the mystery, perhaps all. Within sight of the house he commenced to trample on the twigs underfoot and whistle loudly. If these men had anything to hide he would give them opportunity to hide it. For the time he was reporter, investigating a murder, as well as certain strange proceedings of an old swaggie about one of Australia's oldest houses. If he went openly on an assignment for which Parkinson could vouchsafe, then they would not be suspicious of him. The great doors of the house were wide open and there was no one in the hall.
Sam entered noisily, proceeding to the reception rooms on the right of the hall. He could see no one in the gloom of the window shrouded room, and went to the one window open to the garden court. The court was deserted.
For some moments he stood at the window staring out thoughtfully, his eyes drawn to the deep ominous stain beside the group of statuary in the middle of the garden, the sole token that remained of the man who once was known as Solomon Birder, a financial king of Australia.
Taking care to make no secret of his presence in the house, Sam went to the kitchens. On the floor still remained the "table-cloth" of newspapers Leslie had spread: for their breakfast, and on either side of the papers were the rolled rugs on which they had sat.
Sam moved on, glancing into the other rooms and returning to the hall along the southern side of the house, he found still deserted when he arrived back and determined that unless the constable and Parkinson had decided to examine the servants' wing of the building, they were not on the ground floor.
Standing at the foot of the great stairway, Sam put his fingers to his lips and whistled shrilly. He listened, but there was no answering signal from any portion of the house. He whistled again, with the queer aching feeling that unseen eyes were watching him. Impatiently he shook himself, then turned quickly to be assured that outside the gloom of the house God's good sun still shone on a world entirely normal. Again the newspaper-man whistled and the shrill notes echoed eerily through the great building, rising to the dome of the hall and spreading in strange confusion through the many rooms.
He waited for a reply, but none came, then started to climb the stairs. He came to the landing before the corridor that ran the full width of the house. Again the feeling came on him that he was being watched. He glanced about the space, feeling that each closed door, when his eyes had passed it, had opened a trifle, to allow baneful glances of unseen foes to peer out on him.
He shrugged, and turned to the left-hand side of the top stair, to start back in dismay. Just beyond the newel post that marked the turn of the balustrades, lay the body of a man.
One glance, and Sam recognised Constable Weston, more from the uniform than anything else, for the man was lying face downwards, his legs sprawled apart, one arm doubled under his body the other flung far outstretched, as if in falling he had flung out his arm to guard against a blow.
Sam ran do him, kneeling down by the unconscious man. He sighed with relief when he saw no blood on the man or the surrounding floor. Slipping his hand beneath the body, Sam felt for heart-beats. To his relief Weston's heart was beating strongly. Possibly he would regain consciousness in a few moments. The newspaper-man's first instinct was to roll the man over and examine his face. Prudence made him refrain. Instead he started a search of the body along the back. Almost immediately he came on a large swelling at the back of the head. The skin was unbroken, but the blow had been sufficiently severe to knock the man out on his feet.
Now Sam rolled him over and searched for further wounds. Except for the bruise on the back of the head there were no signs of violence on the body. Sam regained his feet and glanced about the upper floor. A wide corridor opened all round the balustrade that guarded the stair well. Again the eerie feeling came to him that he was being watched—that unseen eyes, backed by malevolent intelligences were studying every move he made. He shuddered, having the queer feeling that had he not come upstairs to the rescue these bestial beings would have seized the unconscious constable and dragged him to their hidden lairs. Again he glanced at the serried rows of doors opening from the well corridors. He sensed that while closed when he studied it, each door immediately opened a slit, when his eyes passed on, and that fierce devil-eyes again peered out on him.
The newspaper-man knew that he should get water for the unconscious constable, but he had the feeling that it would not be wise to leave him at the moment. In his mind had grown a great distrust of the old house, and all that it contained. Normally sane, and intensely practical, Sam was not a believer in spirit-manifestations of the malevolent or benevolent, yet during those few minutes he spent beside the unconscious constable, he came to believe that many hours spent alone in Darrington House would breed in him a firm conviction of the truth of all the "-isms" contained in the dictionary.
There was water in the kitchen, in one of the billies Leslie had brought to the house. A few drops splashed on the constable's face, a few spoonsful dripped between his lips, and he would regain consciousness. And—why should not the man be left for a few minutes? Sam shrugged in self-derision. When he had entered that house he had sent his shrill whistling call into all parts, and no answer had come to him. He had wondered at the time at receiving no answer—but that was because Constable Weston was then insensible.
Sam was turning towards the head of the stairs when a groan from the prone man caused him to halt quickly. The constable's head rolled uneasily on the floor. Stripping off his coat, Sam rolled it and slipped it underneath Weston's head. For an instant the constable's eyes opened, then closed again, while a little frown appeared on his brows.
"Weston!" Sam called insistently. "Wake up, man! It's Laske—Sam Laske speaking! What's happened to you?"
Again the man opened his eyes and stared up, no signs of recognition in their blankness. His head rolled on the folded coat, away from the newspaper-man. Sam pulled it back, tapping the man sharply on the cheek.
"Weston! Constable Weston!"
"Sir?" The voice was weak, but into the open eyes had come some signs of recognition. "Who sandbagged you, Weston! Tell me quick! Where's Parkinson? What have you done with him?"
"Mr. Parkinson, sir? Why, he's—"
"Yes, yes! Where's Parkinson—you know him? The owner of the Southbury Valuator. Of course you know him!"
"Mr. Parkinson, of the Valuator!" The man's tones were uneasy. "Course I know him. I was talking to him—"
"I don't know." Again the fuddled brain rolled the head aside.
"You've got to know." Sam almost shouted at the man. "You must know, Weston! Weston, I'll tell Sergeant Adson you went to sleep on duty, if you don't tell me at once."
"Sleep!" The one word only appeared to penetrate the dulled brain. "Sleep! I want to sleep!"
"Here, wake up! This won't do!" Irritated, and unable to think what best to do for the man, Sam struck him smartly on the cheek with his open hand. "Weston! Constable Weston!"
"Sir?" Again the man opened his eyes and this time there was more intelligence in their depths.
"Come on! Get up! It's no good lying on the stones up here, and with the hall-door wide open, so that anyone can get into the house. I tell you, Sergeant Adson will have a lot to say, if he comes back and finds you indulging in a nap."
Seizing the man by the shoulders, Sam strove to raise him. He partly succeeded, getting the man to a sitting position, then his grip slipped and Weston rolled back on to the coat.
The fall seemed to do the man more good than anything else. He rolled over on to his face and strove to bring his knees up under him. Sam helped valiantly, and presently the man struggled to his feet, holding Sam's shoulder while the journalist's arm encircled his waist. Straining every muscle, for Weston was a big-made man, Sam half-carried, half-dragged him to the stairs-head.
"Here, what's the matter, sir?" The constable spoke with more assurance. "I'm—Why, it's Mr. Laske! What's the matter, sir?"
"That's just what I've been asking you for the past quarter of an hour, man. What happened to you?"
"Happened to me, sir?" The constable straightened himself, yet spoke unsteadily. "I'm all right."
"Are you?" The newspaper-man's tones expressed strong disbelief. He talked, to urge the man to resentment for that way lay quicker full consciousness and the story of the assault. "Didn't happen to slip a bottle in your pocket before you came here? Fine kind of guard, you. Drunk on duty, that's what Sergeant Adson will say when he hears my tale."
"Drunk?" With a supreme effort the constable struck away Sam's steadying hand. "I'm not drunk. I haven't had a drink to-day."
"Of course not." Sam's tones expressed the acme of disbelief. "No one is ever drunk, only magistrates are fools enough to think they are—or have been. Australians are the soberest men under the sun, except when they're inclined to over-estimate their carrying-capacity. Even then, they're not drunk—it's the weather!"
"That's enough of that." Stern officialdom spoke in Weston's voice. He straightened, showing little of his late experiences. "What are you trying to put over me, Mr. Laske? I'm not drunk, and you know that."
Sam laughed. "I thought that accusation would bring you to your senses, Weston. There's one easy first-aid remedy. If ever you find a policeman insensible in an empty house, accuse him of being drunk and incapable. He'll come to in quick time, but you'll risk having a first-class dust-up on your hands."
"Insensible!" Weston stared round the landing. "Now I come to think of it—"
"I came up here, after whistling myself hoarse and searching the ground floor, to find you stretched out, with a bump as big as an ostrich egg on the back of your head. Now, don't say you're breeding chickens—for I shan't believe you've discovered a way of hatching eggs on your neck. You may doubt what I say, but I had to smack your face hard before you deigned to come back to this workaday world."
"Bump, sir?" Tentatively Weston's hands sought the back of his head. He winced, striking the lump gently with his fingers.
"And if you keep repeating my words, I'll give you another large-sized, imitation egg, right on the front of your thick head. Get that, Weston!"
The constable grinned, and shook himself carefully. He backed to the balustrade obviously grateful for support. "Now," continued the newspaper-man. "What became of Mr. Arthur Parkinson? I saw him motoring up to the house. Please don't tell me you haven't seen him!"
"But I have, sir." Weston spoke seriously. "I was in the hall when he came to the house, 'course I know him! He wanted to look over the place. Told me he had come to Barralong on business and had then heard of the murder. He asked me if you were about, and I told him you discovered the corpse, and he nodded and said that was well, for you would let him have details."
"Didn't say what his business in Barralong was, I suppose?" asked Sam, curiously. "Must have been on an increase in his circulation. If he jumps it from three to five here, he'll be lucky. Well, what happened next?"
"Mr. Parkinson, sir? Oh, he said, as he was here, he might as well have a look about the place. I didn't see there could be any harm in that, so I showed him the garden court from the window—but I wouldn't let him go out there. Then he asked what the house was like upstairs, so I brought him up here and—"
"Who led up the stairs?" interrupted Sam, abruptly.
"I did, sir. When I got up here—"
"You turned to come round this side, immediately?"
"Well, what happened then?"
"I don't know, sir."
"You don't know. Then I'll tell you. You mayn't have noticed it, but your friend Parkinson is left-handed. So when you turned to the right at the head of the stairs you gave him just the room he wanted, to swing his sandbag. You went down and out—and now I want to know, where our mutual friend, Parkinson is. That's important. Respectable newspaper-proprietors don't usually carry sandbags—except mental ones for journalists. Where the devil did he go?"
"Mr. Parkinson, sir?" Weston appeared bewildered. "I—"
"Listen here, constable." Sam spoke ominously. "Parkinson knocked you out. You must have done to him what you're doing to me—that is, repeating every word I say. If I knock you out, like he did, but without the softening effects of a sandbag, I'll probably kill you, and any jury that knows your propensity for repetition will bring in a verdict of justifiable homicide—and order me to be presented with the double-cross for daring to do what they're just aching to do themselves."
"But Mr. Parkinson, sir!" Weston became more confused. "I can't believe it of a nice gentleman like Mr. Park—"
"I can, so hold your gab, unless you've got something intelligent to say. You were alone with Parkinson in this house—"
Sam paused suddenly. Had Weston and Parkinson been alone in the house? Where was the woman who had named herself Nyall? She had come to the house early that day—and had disappeared. When he had left the house to go to the hotel for lunch Sam was certain the woman had remained on the premises. Sergeant Adson, the Sydney journalists, they all had believed that Nyall had remained at Darrington House and hoped that Weston, alone in the house, might surprise and capture her. Now Parkinson was also in the house. Had he found Nyall, and were the two in collusion? But for what reason had the man and woman, together or separately, desired to search the house and remain there?
The Jay Bird's secret had been bound up with the billy of gold, and any further treasure he had hidden there. Because of that treasure—because of some desire to share in Solomon Birder's remaining fortune, people had gathered from far and near.
"Get down to the kitchens," ordered Sam. "You'll find a door leading into the kitchen yard—and there you'll find a working pump. Put your flat head under that pump and pump water over it until your brains liquefy—they're solid ice at the moment. When you're normal again, we're going to search this house and we'll keep searching until we locate everything and everyone. Understand everything? Now, for the sake of the dole don't repeat 'everything'! I did that for you. Don't talk until you've pumped a few gallons of water over your head and drank at least one. Now, constable—"
Sam watched the constable walk unsteadily down the stairs. As the man reached the hall, Sam called: "Weston?"
"Sir." The man stopped and looked up.
"Got a gun?"
"No, sir. We're not allowed to carry them, except in exceptional circumstances."
"If this isn't an exceptional circumstance I'll never see one," snapped the journalist. "Well, just to allay your fears, I'll tell you I have one on me and I'm going to use the right end on any suspicious person or thing I see in this house. So don't come creeping round corners, or any of that detectiving business you learn in books, unless you know where I am. I'm liable to shoot first, and talk afterwards."
"But, sir," expostulated the constable. "That sort of thing isn't allowed. You'll get yourself in trouble—"
"I'm in it already right up to the neck." Sam raised his voice. It would be well, if there were crooks in the house, for them to understand they were expected to walk warily. "Now, get to that pump, and work it dry—and when you come back bring some original sayings with you—especially a few 'yes, sirs'. I hate people who tell me I mustn't. They're so damned monotonous."
He watched the constable pass from view round the turn of the passage. For long moments he continued to watch the hall, his arms folded on the balustrade. A slight sound behind him caused him to turn swiftly. There was no one in sight—but the door of the room immediately behind where he was standing was partly open. And he knew it had been shut when Constable Weston had been with him on the landing.
Sam stared amazedly at the door, then pulling his automatic from his pocket he went to it, paused, then swung the door open quickly. The room beyond was empty. Sam returned to has former watching place, closing the door after him and making certain that the latch caught. He thought perhaps he had not securely closed it when—
But, he had not entered or searched one room on this floor on this visit to the house. Pooh! A house like this was full of draughts. Possibly when before lunch they had searched the house someone had left the door ajar, and a wind had now blown it open. He turned to resume his watch on the hall.
Something caused him to glance toward the opposite side of the landing, and he started with almost terror. A door was swinging open, slowly but surely, as if pulled by invisible hands! Holding his gun ready, Sam started to steal across the landing, moving on tip-toe and making as little noise as possible. He had gained the centre of the stairway, when some impulse caused him to look down to the hall.
A girl was entering the house from the portico. Sam stared in astonishment. Her dress was strange and entirely old-fashioned, with wide puffed sleeves and very tight bodice sloping to a narrow waist. Her skirts flowed full and free on the ground. In one hand she held up a fold and from beneath the hem peeped out, as she walked little buckled shoes, as she paced the stone floor. As she came to the centre of the hall she paused, raised her head and stared straight up the stairway, at the journalist. In a flash of bewildered amazement, Sam recognised the girl.
"Leslie! Leslie!" he called, excitedly.
The girl took no notice of his call. She moved silently toward the reception rooms, grasped the handle of a door and pushed it open. Sam ran down the stairs and to the reception rooms. The door was ajar, as if the girl had only pushed it to. He flung the door back and charged into the room. "Leslie! Leslie!" he called again.
There was no one in the room. Sam ran to the window. There was no girl, or other person in the garden court. He stared in amazement. Where had the girl gone to?
SAM LASKE turned from surveying the garden and stared about the big rooms. He was confident he had seen Leslie come in at the open hall door and go directly to the reception room. He had called to her, and she had not answered. Immediately he had run down the stairs to join her—to find that she was not in the reception rooms nor in the garden. It was impossible to conceive that the girl had entered the room and immediately passed out to the hall through another door.
Sam stared about the long rooms perplexedly. He had called to Leslie immediately he had seen her. Surely she had heard him, for he had called loudly, and more than once. He was confident that if the girl had heard him she would have answered—and waited for him to reach her side. Yet she had moved through the hall without giving any sign that she was aware of his presence in the house. There had been no hesitation. From the first she had moved as if to some set purpose and, still more strange, there was her dress!
Sam had very little knowledge of women and their clothing. In his workaday world he was not of the band of journalists who play with and are constantly hanging about the woman writers on the newspapers. So far as his life-thread had twisted he had very little use for women, work had played the better part. In consequence, he felt awkward and confused in their company and, realising this the girls of the newspaper world treated him with a good-humoured tolerance—a contemptuous indifference that sometimes irked.
Women, to his untutored mind, were beings of human origin yet strange instincts and performances. Through long custom and tradition they had to be treated with the greatest deference and allowed to assume an autocracy that did not connote with their mental and physical capabilities. To his belief, they assumed a superiority that was distinctly absurd. Therefore he avoided them. Leslie had been the first girl with whom he had come in contact in whose company he felt at all at ease. Perhaps, he had thought, this had arisen because his first sight of her had been when she was attired in severely practical dress—tunic and riding breeches. He had the feeling that had he met her in city life where, no doubt, she would have been attired, like other girls, in fluttering ribbons, laces and materials of little substance, he would have been scared to death of her. Now he felt towards her a good-humoured, brotherly tolerance, quaintly mingled with a sex-protective instinct.
He realised that never before had he looked on a girl from this view-point. The newspaper-man was certain that Leslie would not willingly avoid him. He was positive that, if there were occasions for them to work independently and as strangers, on this story, she would have taken occasion to inform him of the fact, and give her reasons frankly. She had not done this. She had acted as if she had not heard him, sweeping from his sight wearing a gown that trained and fulled about her like—Yes, she certainly wore a strange dress!
Sam was distinctly aware that where women's dresses were concerned he was a pupil in the lowest class of civilisation's school—in fact, he freely confessed, he was the dunce of the lowest class. Yet, even to his untutored eyes the girl's dress was strangely old-fashioned. His theory of fashion assumed that where, in any one year, a girl's dress trailed the ground to the great embarrassment of men who took larger boot sizes than fives, the following year skirt hems soared high towards the knees, and gave embarrassing hints of rising still higher. So far as his memory served, when he left Sydney, dresses were tending to brevity. But, certainly in those few days fashions could not have dropped so low, and spread so far, as the dress he had lately seen on Leslie.
Again, there was a question of style. While the skirt had been full the bodice was close-fitting and the sleeves large and balloon shaped. So much material was missing from above the waistline that Sam's manly soul almost blushed. What possible reason could have caused Leslie to come to Darrington House in such a dress?
That the old house made a fitting setting for the dress, he was prepared to admit. He thought he had seen pictures of the interior of one of these old colonial houses with women moving about its rooms in similar dresses. On the stage, or in a film the dress might be all right. For a working journalist-girl, in a house fully occupied by cobwebs, the dress appeared entirely wrong!
In some strange fashion his thoughts switched suddenly from the girl to Constable Weston. The man had been away for some time, far too lengthy a period to go to the pump, swill his aching head, and return to the hall. Shrugging impatiently, the newspaper-man left the reception-rooms and went to the kitchens, in search of the constable. A few yards past the great stairway he heard the sounds of heavy boots on the stone of the passage. Then the constable turned the corner and came toward him. The man looked brighter and better, yet at intervals he passed his hand cautiously over the back of his neck.
"Anyone about the offices, Weston?" asked Sam.
"No, sir." The policeman looked perplexed. "I had a good look round to see if Mr. Parkinson was there, before I came back. He wasn't about the kitchens, and I couldn't hear a sound. I wonder where he's got to?"
"That makes three of them missing," frowned Sam.
"Three of 'em, sir?" asked the constable inquisitively.
"Yes, the woman who calls herself Nyall, Parkinson and—Say, Weston, you didn't see a young girl out the back? She's wearing a big, wide-flowing dress with queer-looking sleeves."
"A young girl, sir?"
"If you're going back to your old habit of repeating everything I say, and with that look of pure idiocy on your face, there's going to be a hell of a row here, and you'll get another bump on the back of your head!" ejaculated Sam, angrily. "Don't I speak plain English—or has this house got me so bluffed that I'm speaking Italian—a language I haven't learned yet?"
"No, what, you idiot!" Then Sam laughed suddenly.
"I haven't seen the lady, sir." Weston's face wore a look of much-injured innocence. "There ain't anyone in this house but our two selves."
"Yet you know of two people—and I know of a third! Use your arithmetic, man, and if you add two and one together you'll make four—and in this business that's a crowd!"
Constable Weston did not reply. He drew himself up stiffly, the injured look still on his face. Sam swung round on his heels and led back to the big hall. For a minute or so he paced the space, the constable standing at attention beside the right-hand newel post.
"Look here, Weston." Sam spoke after an interval, and in milder tones, "This house is getting my goat. There's things here that want a lot of explaining, and I'm going to get to the bottom of it all."
"Yes, sir." The policeman answered dutifully, yet without any hope in his tones. It was evident that he recognised in Sam one of those queer mortals, incomprehensible to ordinary humans like himself, who flew in strange tempers over things which really did not matter, yet somehow managed to accomplish affairs that brought both rewards and acclamations. To such a man he was prepared to give grudging allegiance in the hope that when the incomprehensible did happen, some crumbs from the loaves of reward and promotion might fall into his lap.
"I want you to go back to the hotel," said Sam dogmatically.
"Sergeant Adson told me to stay here and watch the house, sir."
"—Sergeant Adson!" remarked Sam coolly and judicially, over quite a number of seconds.
"Yes, sir." On this occasion Weston expressed perfect agreement with the newspaper-man. In past days he had felt similar opinions to those Sam held, yet had never found the necessary terms to express them in his language. He carefully remembered the newspaper-man's phrases.
"You will go back to the hotel and bring here everything we shall require for camping here for several days—food and that sort of thing. I've got a 'nap' in the kitchens, so there'll only be one for yourself to get. And you can bring back the motor-cycle—and don't forget beer, or I'll have Sergeant Adson strip the coat off your back for incompetency. Don't bring the stuff direct to the house now. Hide it in the bush between here and the main road and we'll lump it in after dark. Understand?"
"Sergeant Adson told me to stay here and not allow anyone into the house, sir." Constable Weston's expression was wooden.
For a moment Sam choked. He coughed until he felt calm and lucid again: "Where is Sergeant Adson, constable?"
"In Southbury, sir. He said he might be back tonight but perhaps not until tomorrow."
"Then say, Weston, do you like beer?"
"Yes, sir." Not a shade of doubt showed in this answer.
"Then go down to the hotel and get it, at my expense. Tell the Bart. to slate up all you can drink—and when you come back bring the things I've told you to. Damn it man, do you think Sergeant Adson meant you to stay here and starve and thirst!"
Constable Weston's eyes opened wide. He saluted, turned to the stairs and commenced to mount them.
"Stop that!" Sam shouted. "Where are you going? There's no beer up there!"
"I must get my hat, sir. I can't go outside without my hat. Someone might see me and report me to the superintendent."
Sam watched the retrieving of the hat and then occupied the rear half of the procession to the front door: He stood on the portico steps and watched the constable march down the drive. Then he went back to the house.
Darrington House held secrets—not alone the secret of the Jay Bird's murder. Sam knew that in the house were three people—Leslie, Parkinson and the woman Nyall. He wanted to find and talk to all three, but particularly to Leslie. It was absurd for the girl to believe she could come to that house, filled with innumerable unknown and strange dangers, and believe herself safe. The place was positively dangerous! There were murderers in the house, bludgeoners and outlaws lurking in dark corners. There must be, or how did the Jay Bird come to be murdered?
Instinctively, he backed to a section of the hall wall and stared about the place. He felt safe, with the wall at his back, although he was uncertain regarding the location of what sliding panels and secret doors the house contained. There might be one—Huh! He was not going to be careless like Constable Weston, and get biffed on the head.
Suddenly he grinned. Weston had not said much about the assault on him, but Sam had a shrewd impression that the forthcoming interview between Constable Weston and Arthur Parkinson would not be devoid of interest to the onlookers. It was obvious that Weston was convinced he owed the bump on his head to the newspaper-proprietor.
So far as Sam's explorations of the house had extended he had not discovered signs of secrets, secret panels and chambers, or anything of that nature. The house might contain all these adjuncts to a desirable residence, but so far they had failed to advertise their presence. For the time he decided to disregard their possibilities. It was obvious the Jay Bird had not known of them. The immediate solution of the mystery Sam sought, was the location of the Jay Bird's swag. He held the opinion that in it was some paper that would make plain the reasons why the man had haunted this place over so many years—some hint that would explain the strange conduct of Silas Martinger in the garden-court that morning. That the swag was in Darrington House, Sam well believed. The man had not had it with him when he was at the hotel two nights back. When Sam had met him on the outskirts of Southbury, he had stated that he was returning to Darrington House for it. Then, the swag was in the house.
For the immediate moment the Jay Bird's swag was the big centre of the many mysteries. He knew, for the Jay Bird had told him, that the swag was hidden in the house. It was possible that Getthring, the acting magistrate, at the police-court had inquired about the prisoner's swag, and inferred that it was at Darrington House. Sam had sufficient reasons to believe that if that was true, then Getthring might have given that information to Parkinson—they were old associates. Then that would explain the newspaper-proprietor's sudden visit to Barralong and the old house. That theory might fit the two Southbury men into the puzzle.
Now remained Silas Martinger and Sarah Baters. Martinger had believed something valuable was on the dead man's corpse. The quarrel between the two spiritualists in the hall, on their arrival, showed that the woman was after some similar clue to the treasure. That gave them a place in the puzzle, but before they could be allotted a definite place, their connection with the Jay Bird had to be properly established.
Mysteries were, however, accumulating—yet mysteries were clearing or rather the people holding the mysteries were falling into their due perspectives. Sam felt hopeful. If he could locate Parkinson he might wring from him something approximating the truth. The man had the assault on the constable hanging over his head. He could threaten him with being handed over to the constable's tender mercies, before being locked up in Southbury gaol on a charge of assault. From the square set of Weston's jaw, Sam felt sorry for the newspaper-man, if he had to make such a threat good.
There was the woman, Nyall! If he could locate her, he might induce her to talk. She also was wanted by the police. Sam wriggled comfortably. He felt he held a strong hand. The liberty of two of the people in this house depended on his actions and ideas—if he missed falling a victim to Parkinson's rather freely wielding sandbag!
Back to the wall in the wide spaces of the hall might be good for meditation, but it was not a place in which to solve enigmas. Sam shifted the automatic in his hip-pocket to a side-pocket of his jacket, and clamped his hand in his pocket right on top of the weapon, then went to the kitchens. It was not until he had explored them three times that he chanced on a discovery.
Every house of size contains at least two stairways, but Darrington House contained only one visible stairway! This was inconsistent, for people did not like their servants wandering up and down the main stairway. Sam was annoyed. He should have thought of that when he first searched the house. There must be another stairway!
For long moments he stood in the centre kitchen and stared about him, pondering on the problem of the second stairway. Then a peculiarity in the arrangement of the room caught his eyes. The big fireplace occupied most of the south side of the room, but in the corner near the house interior was a very short passage leading to a door—the door of the butler's pantry. Why the passage, and what was contained in the thickness of the wall between the kitchen and the butler's pantry?
Sam went to the passage and examined it. It was almost a square—about five by six feet. The wainscoting in the passage had a weather-worn appearance, as it had stood since the building of the house. Yet the newspaper-man eyed it doubtfully. The thickness of the wall was about equal to that which the stairs should occupy.
It was dark in the little passage. Sam pulled out his torch and carefully examined the walls. He sounded them, but could not locate any hollowness. He worked carefully on and came to the door to the butler's pantry. Some impulse caused him to go into the butler's pantry and continue the testing of the wall along the line of the supposed stairway. At one spot he came to, the woodwork returned a hollow sound. Again the newspaper-man tested along the wall, finally locating an area of panelling about three feet wide and six feet high which appeared to have no proper backing. Leaving the pantry Sam made a quick search of the offices for some tool to test the panelling. All he could find were a few iron bars in the kitchen fireplace. He looked at these doubtfully.
The panelling was of fine wood, cedar, he believed and to use the irons on it might destroy valuable wood. Returning to the pantry, the journalist set about testing his wits against the secret. Pressing, tapping and twisting he worked twice over the area, then was startled by a slight click and a movement of the panelling under his hand. A few seconds more work and a section of the panelling swung back silently.
Tensed with excitement, Sam left the sliding panel and went to the door leading to the front of the house, and listened. So far as he could understand there was no one moving about the house, yet he still had that strange sensation of being watched by unseen eyes. He went to the main kitchen and found some pieces of wood. From these he formed some rough wedges, forcing these into the jambs of the doors, so as to hold them fast. Then he returned to the sliding panel.
The panel slid back easily, but revealed no stairway. The light of the torch revealed a strangely shaped space, wide to the height of the room on the wall side, and tapering to a point at the floor on the opposite side. For a moment the newspaper-man was puzzled, then he understood. He was under the stairway. The treads had been boarded on the underside. Speculatively, he flashed his light about the space in which he stood. It was ten to twelve feet long and not more than four feet wide, if that. A strange darkness on the floor close to the house wall attracted his attention. He went to it—and found himself standing on the edge of a flight of circular stone steps, leading down to the foundations of the house.
FOR some moments Sam Laske hesitated, standing looking down into the blackness of the cellars. He turned and looked over his shoulder at the narrow space in which he stood, illuminated, but for his torch, by the dim light that filtered in from the butler's pantry. On sudden impulse he returned to the room and made sure his wedges were firmly fixed in the doors, then again returned to the winding stairway and flashed his light into the darkness. All he could see were the stone treads, winding downwards.
Slowly, cautiously, he ventured down the stairs, testing each step before he allowed his weight to come on it. At length he passed the steps and stood on the stone flags of the cellars. Again the torchlight wavered about him.
He found he was standing in a medium width passage extending to the right and left of the stairway. Before him was a stone wall. He turned to the right and made his way along the wall. Presently he came to a doorway. It opened into a stone-walled room. A few yards further on was a similar room. He came to a third, and fourth. Then he understood. He was passing a line of cellar rooms.
At length he came to the end of the passage and found another passage continuing down on the left. He believed that now he was standing under one angle of the house—the angle to the south-west. He went on down the new passage and again passed numerous doorways on his left. These also opened into a series of chambers, some of them of narrow width, but all of fair length. This passage continued for a far greater distance than the former passage, but at length he reached its end, and again found a passage branching off to his left. This passage, he believed to run under the front of the house.
Moving along this new passage Sam suddenly found that one of the cellars apparently had no end. A few minutes search and thought and he found that this was another passageway between rows of cellar-rooms. Leaving this new passage-way for later exploration, the newspaper-man returned to the front of the house and continued until he reached the north-east corner of the foundations.
Again a passage led to the left. Almost the first cellar-opening he visited in this new passage provided a surprise. In it was a pile of earth and rubble, but there were no signs of excavations in the place. Full of curiosity, he went on to the next cellar, to find it similarly occupied, but nearly full of the mixture of earth and rubble. The next cellar was the same, and so the next and—
And then his torch lit up a great hole on the outer wall of the passage. For long moments Sam stood and gazed at the work. Who had dug this hole, and for what purpose? It was evident that the earth and rubble he had found in the cellar-compartments had come from this hole. Reviewing the amount of material piled in the cellars, Sam came to the conclusion that the hole extended some way into the earth. But, for what reason had it been dug?
One name leaped immediately into his mind. This was the work of the Jay Bird! Then he stood and marvelled at the industry represented. To have accomplished the work must have taken months, if not years. Yet, why had the hole been dug. It was impossible to conceive that the Jay Bird had dug this hole in search of buried treasure. But if the buried treasure theory had to be discarded, then all his theorising must go by the board. The link that held his theories together had been the billy of gold—and even a mad Jay Bird would not undertake such labour for a mere five hundred minted sovereigns.
Sam's first impulse was to immediately explore the hole in the wall. He put the thought from him. It was more important for him to gain a knowledge of the geography of the cellars. He knew much, and possibly could guess the remainder, but in that rabbit warren of passages and chambers, with only the light of his torch, to trust to theory was madness.
He proceeded along the passage in a westerly direction. The cellar chambers he passed were filled, as had been those on the other side of the hole in the wall, with a mixture of earth and rubble. Barely flashing his light into chamber after chamber, the newspaper-man hurried on until he again met a corner. A few yards along this new passage and before him, in the quick light of his torch looked the blackness of the circular stairway.
Running quickly up the stone steps, Sam came out into the butler's pantry. He pulled out his wedge and opened the door into that passage that led to the great hall. A quick search of the near rooms and the newspaper-man became convinced that Constable Weston had not yet returned from his message to the hotel. Perhaps he was taking Sam's advice very literally, and filling up with beer to solace his aching head.
Sam was rather scared, when he returned to the butler's pantry, to discover that he had left not only the door to the pantry open, but the sliding panel shoved back. Still, what did that matter? Then he remembered the people hiding in the house. A careful survey of the room gave him reason to believe that no one had entered it since he left it. Wedging the door again, Sam descended to the cellars and immediately went to the hole in the wall.
At the entrance to the tunnel he paused a moment, then entered. The roof was low and he had to bend to avoid the beams holding up the room. A few yards from the opening he paused and swept his light around. The enormousness of the work enthralled him. It must have taken the Jay Bird years to have accomplished this work.
Again came the thought: What had the Jay Bird hoped to accomplish by this tremendous work? He put thought from him and proceeded steadily forward. Suddenly Sam came to a blank wall before him. Was this all the boring the Jay Bird had accomplished before he met his death? Sam could not believe that!
He swept the torchlight along the walls, then suddenly gave a low exclamation of satisfaction. A few yards back an opening led out of the tunnel to the left. The strangeness of this break in the tunnel puzzled and confused the newspaper-man. He tried to work out where under the house he stood. Then, like a flash of light realisation came! He was in a tunnel under the garden court where the Jay Bird had met his death! A nebulous idea was forming in Sam's mind. The Jay Bird had dug this tunnel, and he had been killed almost in the centre of the garden court—approximately exactly above where he now stood. What was the significance of that?
The journalist turned to the new tunnel and hurried along it as fast as he could move. This new passage was short. Almost before Sam realised it, he was clutching at the walls, slithering his feet, to prevent him being precipitated into a deep pit. A few moments and his nerves recovered from the sudden shock. Sam cast his torchlight on the edge of the pit and found that the constructor had been working a series of steps down to it. Only a few had been formed, and the signs of the last work were beside the discarded tools. He slowly raised the light, casting the beams on all the walls of the pit. To his amazement he found them of stone—old stone, to which the ages had festooned strange, lifeless plant-life, kept in existence by the weird humidity that rose from the pit. Backing slowly into the passage, Sam kept his light circling. He saw that the tunnel had been driven into the side of a stone-built well. He was under the garden court, but the garden court held no well. The only construction in the garden court was the group of statuary in its centre. Then—
Sam stuttered on the idea. Did that group of statuary cover what was once a well? An owner of Darrington House who covered the garden court well with a massive group of statuary must have been mad!
There was no well in the garden court. That meant, if the signs that showed the place had once been the pleasure ground of the house, that every drop of water for use in it had to be carted into the garden. Why then had the well been covered in?
The slow dwindling of his torch light showed that the battery was nigh exhausted. Sam turned hastily toward the entrance of the tunnel. It would be unwise to risk being left in the dark in that place. He hurried on anxious to get to the cellars before his light gave out. Almost he saw the entrance when, with a last expiring flicker the torch went out and black darkness enveloped him. Sam swore under his breath. Placing one hand on the right-hand wall he worked along to the entrance. His hand slipped from the wall—to nothing—and he knew he was at the cellars. He sighed his relief.
The slight sound of a foot slithering on the stones came to his ears. For a moment he realised that he was not alone in the cellars. Then some tremendous weight descended on his head, and he felt himself sinking—sinking—into a horrid void of intense blackness. Through a thick darkness flashed little points of light. They danced and twirled, gradually drawing out into little streaks that grew larger and more rapid in movement. Gradually they came nearer to him and spread larger, blending and glowing like the first dawn of a slow-growing winter's dawn.
Sam Laske opened his eyes, to close them again quickly. Light was shining directly on his face—and he rolled over to shield his eyes in the shadows. He wanted to sleep, but a dull throbbing in his temples prevented that.
Something cold and refreshing touched his forehead, lingered there a moment, then moved, deliciously comfortingly, across his eyes. Sam lifted his head. He liked that. He hoped it would come again, and moved his head: to meet the healing coolness. It came, that queer streaking of cold across his forehead and eyes, and again departed.
He opened his eyes and looked up. He could see large blackened logs of wood above his head, and thought of the bushland surroundings Darrington House. Then he remembered the tunnel. He noted, when he had proceeded through the tunnel, that the roof was supported on rough-hewn beams. But those logs bore the white streaks of recently applied axes on their faces. The beams above his head did not show those marks.
Then he realised that he was lying on a wooden floor and looking up at a heavily beamed ceiling. A stray thought that managed to dodge the aching pains in his head suggested that he was under the roof of some great building. He thought. Then he was under the roof of Darrington House, and no longer in its cellars.
Through the strange half-lights of the queerly shaped room came a long, dark object whose lower end flapped weirdly in the slight breeze that stirred the air of the place. Sam moved his head round—and looked up into the face of the strange woman who, on coming to the old house, had proclaimed her name to be "Nyall."
For a moment he frowned, then grinned. Nyall! Was that her real name? No, someone had spoken her name in his hearing once. What was it? Miss.—Mrs.—Ah, he had it! Keston had said her name was Sarah Baters.
Sarah Baters! Huh! Well, Nyall was a far prettier name, anyhow! Keston had said that 'Nyall,' in some Victorian aborigine dialect meant 'a mist.'
Painfully Sam wriggled into a position where he had a better view of the woman. Short, very short and stout, with a round, red face that somehow reminded him far more of a household cook than of a spiritualist. Certainly, Sarah Baters was not spirit-like!
"Hullo!" he said faintly.
The woman turned her head and looked down on him, a broad, good-humoured, motherly smile on her full lips.
"So you are better," she said. "You—have been unconscious a long time."
Her words brought the history of the past day back to Sam's remembrance. He strove to raise himself but fell back, realising that brain and muscle refused to coordinate for the time.
"Lie still," said the woman, and again the coolness came on his head and face. "You are not strong yet. Soon you will be and then—"
"And then I am going to have a few words with whoever knocked me out." The newspaper-man spoke savagely. "That fellow's got a lot to explain." He pondered a moment. "Say, Nyall, if you like to be called that, I was knocked cold in the cellars, wasn't I? Well, how did I get up here, for I'm guessing I'm under the roof of the old house?"
"I carried you." Nyall replied, and the words were so simply spoken that Sam stared.
"You carried me?" he repeated. He looked at the woman, sitting cross-legged on the floor beside where he lay. "You carried me? Well, I happen to know I'm some weight. One fifty-odd, the last time I was weighed."
"I am very strong." Nyall spoke quietly. "I had difficulty—yes, there was difficulty in getting you up the narrow steps of the cellars, but from there I managed quite easily, except when we had to pass through the panels. My trouble was to avoid those who are about the house."
"Why didn't you get Constable Weston to help you?" asked Sam. "Nyall—oh, bother! I can't use that heathenish name for a woman like you—I'm going to call you Miss Baters. That's your name, isn't it? Miss Sarah Baters!"
"At one time that was my name." The woman replied without emotion. "Then, he married me, and I became 'Nyall'."
"Who married you," interrupted the journalist. "I know you have been married—Keston told me that—but he didn't mention your married name."
"Then you do not know." The strange woman laughed gently. "At one time I was Mrs. Silas Martinger—but I have since preferred 'Nyall'!'"
"You are Silas Martinger's wife?" Blank astonishment swept over the journalist, "But—I heard him and you quarrelling—"
"In your circle of life do husbands and wives not quarrel?" Miss Baters spoke quietly, a slight sarcasm in her voice.
"I apologise!" Sam grinned and struggled to a sitting position, crossing his legs under him and facing the spiritualist. "I apologise. You are quite right. That one small fact should have informed me you and Silas were of that happy band of couples who have sincerely, promised to love, honour—and 'bear' each other!"
"What is love?" asked Miss Baters judicially. "Love is—"
"Just that!" interjected Sam fearing some divergence into the spirit world. "What I want to know is, why didn't you get hold of Constable Weston and have me taken down to the hotel? Why bring me up here?"
"Because here, you are safe. They cannot get at you. Here—"
Sam groaned in spirit. It appeared hopeless to try and get anything sensible out of these people who talked with spirits and such-like fantasy. The woman's voice became grave.
"Who are they?" he asked.
"The men who sought what you have discovered—what he, who is now of the blessed spirits, hid!"
The quaint remark, couched in the jargon time had, no doubt, made more familiar to the woman than her native Australian, jolted Sam to realisation of his immediate problems.
"That's something like," he observed, more interestedly. "Shall I guess, and say that Silas Martinger and Arthur Parkinson—"
"Who in another phase of his life on this earth was known as Thomas Dinkier," observed Sarah Baters quietly.
"Thomas Dinkier!" Sam struggled to his feet, filled with astonishment. "Now that's just the name I've been trying to remember for quite a time. Thomas Dinkier. He was the man who promoted the Kennington and Kensington Insurance Company—one of the companies that went 'west' in Solomon Birder's big crash! That's him! I knew his face, but for the life of me, I couldn't fit him with a real name!"
For moments he puzzled over the new facts that had come to him, fitting into the puzzle be had been striving during past days to put in proper order.
"What was Silas Martinger's connection with Dinkier, or Parkinson, as he is now?" he asked abruptly.
"Silas had little to do with Dinkier," replied Miss Baters.
"No?" Sam guessed. "Silas was a confederate of Solomon Birder, wasn't he?" He paused, to note the woman's nod of confirmation of his guess. "Then how were Solomon Birder and Silas Martinger connected—It was business, I suppose?"
"Silas is a great man." The woman spoke with full faith. "The spirits who control me and those who control him, are antagonistic, but I must speak the truth. Silas is a great man. He, and the man you name Solomon Birder—"
"Call him the Jay Bird, if you like. I heard this morning that in certain Sydney circles he was known as the Jay Bird long before he made his financial crash."
"There was an arrangement between him and Silas." Miss Baters spoke after a considerable pause. "Yes, the spirits bid me talk frankly to you, for the spirits who guide you are more powerful than those who speak with me—and those who advise Silas. You will prove the stronger—to you will be given the earthly record that Solomon Birder and those who sought to steal his last treasure, fought to gain."
"That's all right!" Sam spoke coaxingly. "Now, just what was the connection between Solomon Birder and Silas Martinger?"
"In the days of the past, days that have joined the spirits in another land, Solomon Birder came to Silas Martinger and tempted him—tempted him to use his arts and the guidance of the spirits to gain for Birder the customers he could not obtain in other ways."
"Ah!" Sam expelled his breath in a long, deep sigh. "Now I understand. I have often wondered how Solomon Birder got hold of all his dupes. Some people thought he brought them into his net through his extensive advertising, but—"
"The spirits sent him many," confirmed the woman.
"Or, rather, your husband, claiming to be speaking the words of the spirits advised credulous people to invest their small saving in Solomon Birder's companies. That's right, isn't it?" demanded Sam.
"I, also." The woman spoke honestly. "For a time it was good. There are people who believe in the manifestation of the spirits. They believed, and Silas and I gave them the advice we obtained from Solomon Birder, as if we had obtained it from the spirits who control us. For a time they made money, and were grateful. Then they lost—"
"They certainly did!" The newspaper-man spoke emphatically. "That is the first time I've ever heard of the trick being played that way by a man who professed to be a great financier. Wonder why none of them thought of it before? Or, perhaps someone did, and it wasn't discovered. Yes, that's it! I've often puzzled how those great fake financiers in history were always so successful in defrauding the widow, the orphan, and the ignorant. Why, worked that way multitudes of small investors—army and navy men retired, and civil servants, and all that crowd would just flock to be skinned They're just the idiots for the financial wolves to prey on—people with so much leisure that they've stultified the little brains they've got! And they're always hard up—and looking for companies who pay impossible dividends. The poor, damned fools!"
Sarah Baters did not reply. She continued to sit cross-legged on the floor, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes downcast, watching her hands.
"So you and Silas helped Solomon Birder to gather in the dupes?" The newspaper-man asked after a period of meditation. "Then, you and Silas split—but that was after the golden stream dried up and Solomon Birder went into hiding. Say, Miss Baters, why did you come here?"
"I learned from a newspaper that Solomon Birder had been seen in this district."
"You read the Bart.'s account of the Jay Bird's finding of a billy of gold at Darrington House," corrected Sam. The woman inclined her head in assent.
"So you came here in the hopes of getting hold of the Jay Bird?"
"He owed me money, much money."
"But you and Silas had parted company by this time." objected the journalist. "Perhaps it's right that Solomon Birder owed your husband money?" Miss Baters laughed suddenly.
"Oh, I'm short and fat, and have a round, good-humoured face and look stupid," she exclaimed ironically. "But I'm not such a fool as I look, and I never quite trusted Silas. No. Solomon Birder had to come to me to make a separate arrangement regarding how I advised my clients—and he paid me personally. I know too much to let Silas get hold of the money I earned."
Sam nodded. He knew of the peculiar strata of society in which Nyall and her husband lived. With these people honour and truth never hold high places. Miss Baters, as she now preferred to call herself, was too greatly imbued with the spirit of her upbringing to allow only one banking account in her married life. That would certainly have proved a one-man account!
"Let's get back to the old question," he suggested. "I asked you why you didn't get Constable Weston to help you bring me up from the cellars?"
"You ask many questions that are not necessary." Miss Baters frowned. "I was watching you when you found the secret panel that led down to the cellars. You were clever, or lucky. Silas and I had searched for it and had not found it. I know the man Dinkier searched for it, and—"
"Then you followed me into the cellars?" asked Sam.
Sarah Baters nodded. "It was easy," she remarked. "You made a lot of noise and you left the door in the panel open. In the cellars I could follow you very easily."
"I believe I did make a noise," replied Sam ruefully. He remembered stumbling about the place and his not low-toned remarks anent people who built black dungeons under their houses.
"Who biffed me?"
"Thomas Dinkier—he who you know as Arthur Parkinson."
"Thanks," remarked Sam grimly. "I won't forget that. What did he do after knocking me insensible?"
"I made a noise—then he ran away, and I gathered you up and carried you out of the cellars, first coming up to the kitchens to see that the path was clear—that no one was watching for me."
"Well, where are we?" asked, Sam, when the woman paused.
"We are in the attic, under the roof," replied Nyall. "You had not discovered them."
"You had," smiled Sam.
"The police, searching the house, drove me up here. I was seeking a hiding place and found the panel that opened on the ladder that led up here."
"And you lugged me up a ladder." Sam marvelled. He looked at the woman. "You are strong."
"I am strong." Miss Baters nodded simply.
"Well, what became of Weston, if we have to go over that ground again." Sam spoke wearily. His head ached infernally.
"He was in the hall, when I went up there after Dinkier—or rather, Parkinson, scared him."
A slight smile dawned on the woman's lips. Her eyes showed enjoyment of some secret joke.
"Played the bogey on him," guessed Sam. "Well, where's he now? I say, you'd better get hold of him and bring him up here to me."
Miss Baters shook her head decidedly.
"No, I do not want the police up here."
"But he'll find his way up here, eventually," protested Sam. "Look here, it's no good playing hide and seek with the police. By the time Constable Weston knows I'm missing—for he's sure to have searched the house on his return from the village. If he doesn't find me, he'll go back to the hotel and telephone Sergeant Adson—and Adson'll bring enough police from Southbury to pull this place down. They'll find—"
"That will take days for them to accomplish." Nyall spoke with certainty. "And in those days I shall find what I seek."
"And what Silas also seeks, and what Parkinson and Jess Markham are seeking," jeered Sam. "Well, you're all on the job but with the police watching you haven't much hope of finding anything while you have to dodge them—And, if you ask me, I think I'm a jolly sight closer to solving the Jay Bird's secret than any of you."
"You found the tunnel in the cellars," acknowledged the woman.
"And I found more than that," Sam challenged. "Look here, Miss Baters, you haven't any hope of succeeding in your search, and if you discover what I think the secret is, you can't make use of it. Chuck up the impossible task of trying to fool the police and I'll see that you get a proper share of the loot, if there is any."
For long minutes the woman pondered, then she struggled to her feet and stood looking down on the journalist.
"You shall stay here until I return," she said. "There is food there," she pointed to a corner. "No," she interpreted Sam's stealthy survey of the chamber. "There is no door here, but the way out I do not think you will find. When I come back I will tell you what I will do—whether I will help you, or not."
"That's a bet!" Sam held up his hand to Nyall. For some reason he could not logically define, he liked and trusted her. "But why shouldn't I come with you?"
The woman went to the corner of the room she evidently used for a larder and returned with a pannikin.
"Drink this." She raised his head and held the pannikin to his lips. Sam drank thirstily, suddenly realising there was something more than water in the dish.
When he was once more reclining on the nap of rags Nyall stood for some seconds looking down on him, then smiled. "You will come with me?" she queried, at length. "Well, come!"
She moved in the direction of a dark corner of the attic. Sam tried to struggle to his feet, but could not. He felt strangely weak. The woman laughed gently.
"See, you cannot stand," she said. "No, you cannot come—yet!"
Suddenly she turned and came back to where Sam lay. Raising his head and propping it against her knee, she thrust a pencil into his hand and held before him a writing-pad.
"Write," she commanded urgently. "Write to the man you call 'The Bart.' Write and tell him you are on the trail of great things and that you will see him shortly. Tell him all is well with you and your guest. I, Nyall, will see that your words shall come true."
A sudden lassitude had overwhelmed Sam's brain. Obedient to the strange compelling power in the woman's voice, he wrote almost word for word the message she demanded.
As Nyall lowered him back onto his makeshift pillows, he asked, languidly: "How will you get that to the Bart.?"
"The constable shall take it."
"If you go near Constable Weston he will arrest you. Those are Sergeant Adson's orders," warned Sam.
"There are ways—" Miss Baters smiled secretly, and Sam thought of the many artifices he had read spiritualists used. Yes, he was confident the woman would get the note to the Bart., and that the note would pass into the constable's hands in some mysterious manner.
"Say—" Sam held out his hand as the woman moved from his side. "What did the Jay Bird seek in this house? If he found anything of value here, he couldn't claim it—it would belong to the owner, Miss Cantle."
"Solomon Birder was a wise man." The voice of Nyall came out of the gloom of the attic into which she had retired. "Solomon Birder long suspected riches—hidden wealth in this house. He sought, in the days when he had wealth beyond the desires of the ordinary man, and he could not find. When he became only the Jay Bird he came here—and discovered much—Much that I know not of."
"Anyway," argued Sam drowsily. "His best course was to have gone to the owner and sell the secret of what he knew. He couldn't possibly keep it to himself."
"Solomon Birder was wise. He had taken his precautions, I am assured of that." Nyall's voice appeared to come from a large distance. "He would have found a way!"
"HEY, Nyall! Miss Baters!"
There was no response. Craning his neck back, Sam tried to search the shadows into which the spiritualist had slowly backed a few minutes before. He called again, but no answer was returned, nor could he see the faintest shadow of her in the gloom of the room. And while he struggled to again get in touch with the strange woman, a deep, sweet lethargy stole on him. He nestled down, amid the miscellaneous rags that constituted his bed, gradually drifting into the land of sleep.
Sam didn't quite know what he wanted to say to the woman but, back of his mind was the comfortable thought that it could wait. It wasn't of any importance. His brain seemed to be a welter of ideas that did not, in any way, approximate sense. There was so much to think of—those new parts about Silas Martinger and Solomon Birder. What exactly had Nyall said about the two men? Oh, yes! They had been connected in business. The Jay Bird had married Silas—No, that wasn't right. Sarah Baters had married Silas.
Then, what relation to Sarah Baters was Nyall? Nyall!-oh, she was Sarah Baters. Then how did it come, if Nyall was a spiritualist, Sarah Baters was a cook? His wandering thoughts came up against a blank wall, and stuck there.
Nyall! He could close his eyes and picture her big, round, red, comfortable-looking face. That was queer stuff she had given him to drink. Sweet and rather pungent, though rather pleasant. Then she had gone to a corner—No, she had gone to the corner to get the stuff! Wonder what it was! Yes, she had gone to the corner—and had faded away into the shadows.
He giggled. Spiritualists and spirits always did that sort of things Rather fun to see Sarah, with her short, stout figure clad in the voluminous black robes she wore fading into nothingness. Well, why not, if it amused her. He wanted to fade—no, he wanted to sleep—sleep—
Sam thought that he had travelled many million miles through space before consciousness brought him back to the attic room in Darrington House. There wasn't much light in the place, and although he craned his head in every direction he could not see Nyall. His mouth tasted hard and bitter, and he wanted a drink—But he didn't want to get up and find one. All he wanted was to lie there. It was really very comfortable in that attic. Lie and dream until someone came to him—and—
"Nyall," he called softly, and waited. No one came to him. He called again, and only the echoes of his voice awoke the vibrations that lurked amid the dusty rafters of the roof overhead. A sudden anger that he should be so ill and left alone came over him, and he sat up quickly. So far as sight could penetrate the half-shadows in the attic, he was alone. He glanced at his wrist-watch. The hands stood at half-past eight. But, if that was the right time there should be no light in the attic, for at that period there was no early moon. He felt decidedly ill-used that he should have to wait on himself. He struggled to his feet—and immediately collapsed again on his nap.
There he sat and gravely considered the situation. He was certain that at the moment he could not stand. A few moments serious reflection and he commenced to crawl on hands and knees to the corner from where Nyall had brought the water. Surely he would find water there and, at the moment he longed for a long, satisfying drink of water more than for anything else. If his throat had not been so parched and sticky he would have cheered when he found a half-bucket of water in the corner. He tasted it, tilting the bucket against his mouth. The water was warm, yet it satisfied. For minutes Sam sat beside the bucket, drinking intermittently, and pouring more of the liquid down his vest-front than into his mouth, for buckets are awkward drinking vessels.
His thirst at length satisfied, he essayed to gain his feet. Climbing up, holding to the angle of the wall, he at length succeeded in standing on his feet, then propped his back against the wall and surveyed the length and breadth of the attic. There was nothing of consequence in that wide, long, low space. Only the bundle of clothing spread in the middle of the floor and on which he had lain for many past hours. The sight of the nap brought with it an intense, overwhelming desire to again sleep—and he staggered from the corner to throw himself on the hard bed and fall into a deep, intense sleep.
The attic was entirely dark when Sam awoke. He brought his wrist up against his face, but could see neither hands nor figures on the watch-face. Somewhere about midnight, he guessed, and didn't worry, for he felt restful and happy. Once he called the woman, softly, but she did not answer. Well, why worry? Perhaps she was hunting for the Jay Bird's treasure. Good luck to her if she found it—but she couldn't blame him, if the treasure she found proved worthless to her. He had warned her—and that was all he could do. The Jay Bird's treasure! What constituted the Jay Bird's treasure?
Sam was forced to confess that confidence in his knowledge had evaporated. He was certain there was a treasure, but he had not the foggiest idea what constituted the treasure. All he knew was that the Jay Bird had cut a tunnel from under the foundations of the house to the well in the garden court. What had he searched for? The two passages, one at right angles to the other showed that the well had been the objective of the work. But what had the well to do with the search for treasure? The well was sealed by the group of statuary—and beside that garden ornament the Jay Bird had met his death!
Then, what had he been doing there? Why, if the well was his objective, hadn't he continued with his tunnelling work. The whole affair didn't make sense—Sam swore softly to himself. Oh, well, he wasn't going to bother about that now. His head ached infernally, and he wanted to sleep. He turned on his side and closed his eyes. Had a minute, an hour, or a day passed since he closed his eyes in the pitch-dark attic?
Now there was a faint light in the room—a thin beam of pure white, soft light, pendant from the roof and ending in a little circular pool of glowing beams on the dusty floor-boards. Sam lay and watched the light. It moved slowly, very slowly—moving to the wall on one side of the room. Suddenly a voice called, through the half-lights:
"Sam! Sam! I want you!"
"Sam! Sam! I want you"
He waited, listening. He knew the voice, he had heard it before, and in his heart it awoke echoes of memory. Leslie was calling him! He sat up quickly and answered:
"Leslie—Where are you?"
Again the voice spoke, calling out of the shadows:
'"Sam! Sam! Come to me!"
"Where, Leslie? Where?" He struggled to his feet, to find the dizziness had left him, that strength was again flowing through his muscles.
"Come!" repeated the little, clear voice, and the word appeared to echo through vast distances.
"Leslie!" called Sam again, and this time there was no answer.
Standing above the nap on which he had lain for so many hours, Sam stared about the attic. Again his eyes came to the little pool of light on the floor. The moonbeams had met some obstruction and were now elongated, assuming the form of a short, fat finger—and that finger pointed to one side of the room.
Whimsically, and unable to decide for himself, Sam went in the direction of the pointing finger. He came to the wall. It was a boarded wall and his fingers strayed idly over its surface. His fingers caught on some protuberance. He dragged on it, and through the gloom came the sound of a small click. He pressed forward, hands outstretched, and while his right hand met woodwork, his left hand passed into space.
Instinct, not sight, told him that he had found the entrance to the attics. Moving cautiously, shuffling his feet on the boards, for he had no light, he felt for ladder or stairs. There were boards under his feet, and he judged he was in a passageway. Swaying from side to side, with hands outstretched, he could just touch the wall on either side. He moved forward more confidently, sliding one foot cautiously before the other.
Then his foot slid out into space-Dropping on his hands and knees, Sam felt forward. He found he was at the head of a ladder. The ladder was fixed and the rungs almost like steps. He would have called it a stairway but for the steepness of the treads.
Turning round, he climbed down it backwards. Again on level floor, he started to turn, but found himself in a narrow, box-like space. Whichever way he turned, he was confronted by a wall. The space was so narrow that three men standing close would have overcrowded it.
Desperately he thrust, at each side of the box-like space in which he stood, but the walls resisted his strength. Almost he thought he would have to re-ascend the ladder, but common sense insisted that the panel and ladder would not be there unless there was some means of exit at the ladder's foot.
More carefully than before he tested the walls of his prison. One of them shook slightly under his hands. He passed his hands over the wall-space. Close to the ground, and where a slightly raised foot would have caught it, was a projection. Thrusting this down, a door swung open, outwards. As the door opened, it seemed to obscure some faint light beyond.
Stepping forward, Sam found himself in a small chamber. He caught at the door and shut it. Now, before him he found another, partly-open door, and beyond this was a bedchamber. His first instinctive glance when he entered the room was at the windows. These windows were not boarded, as had been every other window Sam had seen in the house.
Through the partly-opened window glowed faint moonlight, illuminating eerily an ornately furnished bedroom. The newspaper-man stared in astonishment. He had not known there were rooms in Darrington House containing furniture and as this one showed plainly, recently occupied by a lady. On the old-fashioned dressing-table, amid a litter of intimate toilet articles stood two half-burned candles. On the bed lay a disorder of clothing. From this room opened only one door, beside the secret panel in the closet. Sam went to it and opened it. He found himself in a corridor, presumably on the upper storey of the house—and this corridor was fully carpeted and furnished!
Then he heard voices, faintly coming from far along the corridor. He could distinguish the high, light voices of women, imposed on the harder, deeper men's voices. Sam stared about him bewilderedly, and, on the opposite side of the corridor noticed a door partly open. He went to it, and peered into a room. This room, also, was fully furnished and showed signs of recent occupation. Sam turned abruptly in the direction in which he believed the main stairway lay and, as he progressed over the heavily carpeted floor, the voices became louder.
Walking slowly, and staring about him at the fresh evidences of an occupied house on every side, he came suddenly out of the corridor on to the square that surrounded the head of the stairs. He paused an instant and a door opened almost facing him. A young lady came out of a room and turned to shut the door.
Sam stared at her amazedly. In many respects she was attired as Leslie had been that afternoon, but her dress was more ornate. Some instinct told him that the difference was not that of period but of merely day and evening wear. As the girl turned from the door Sam made a step forward, to speak to her and explain his presence in the house. But, staring at him as if he were not present, the girl moved with small mincing steps to the stairs and descended them.
Annoyed at what he took to be a deliberate cut, Sam followed the girl down the stairs. Half-way down he paused and stared at the scene in the hall, half-frightened, half-bewildered.
The great hall was full of people, dressed in costumes that reminded him of a fancy dress ball at Sydney's Town Hall. Yet there was a certain sameness about the dresses that showed that they were all within one period. Most of the men were in uniform and in nearly every case were fully armed. For the moment the thought flashed into Sam's mind that someone was trying to play a huge practical joke on him. Then he shrugged and set the idea aside. Even if any of the people in the vicinity had such thought, they had not the means to carry it out. No, this was no sham pretence. Some instinct told him that in some strange manner, he had pierced the veil of time and now stood amid a bygone generation.
The big hall-doors were wide, open, and through them, from where he stood on the stairs, Sam looked out on well kept gardens and a noble carriage drive leading through a plantation of trees to the main road. On the well-kept lawns gaily dressed women moved, accompanied by attentive cavaliers. Slowly he walked down the stairs until he stood in the hall. Men and women moved, laughed and talked about him, yet not by word or sigh gave knowledge of his presence.
A strange, almost inhuman fact suddenly impinged on Sam's consciousness. He could see the women and men surrounding him talking and laughing, but he could not hear a word. All about him was a deep silence that gave to him the feeling of looking on from immense space. He saw a powdered, liveried footman approach a couple standing beside, him. The lady spoke, evidently conveying some order, and the man bowed and replied. Some sense of thought transference conveyed to Sam's brain the order given to the man, but of it he had not heard one solitary inflection.
Intrigued and curious, he turned to other couples, watching their lips and noting the expression on their faces—and in every instance he knew the thoughts they uttered.
Some strange influence that Sam knew had ordered his movements from the moment he awoke for the last time in the attic, bade him move to the reception rooms. There he found assembled a gay throng. A big, wide space had been cleared down the centre of the rooms and on this dancing floor, in stately measure, bowing cavaliers and curtseying ladies. At the far end of the room, in a corner, a small band was playing, and here again Sam was puzzled. He knew the band was playing. He saw the stately couples move through the dance, but not one single sound could he hear. Over everything lay a deathly silence.
A little stir among the guests crowded close to one of the pair of long windows leading out to the garden court, caught Sam's attention. A middle-aged, handsomely-dressed man was speaking. He paused and offered his arm to a lady who stood beside him with an elaborate bow. The lady accepted the arm after a low and profound curtsey. The couple passed through the window into the garden, and behind them walked the other couples in the room.
From the hall and the lawns before the house other couples came, until the garden court was well crowded. Some instinct told Sam that the lady and gentleman who led the procession were Rufus Darrington, the builder of the house, and his wife. He watched them pass along the well-tended garden paths, through beds of glowing flowers, to a patch in the centre of the space that looked crude and new. From the steps on which he was standing, lifting him a little above the heads of the throng, Sam had a good view of the proceedings.
He saw Rufus Darrington pause beside a mass of stone-work that was evidently a well-mouth. Above the stonework stood a heavy windlass, and on the edge of the well stood a new oaken bucket, banded with brass hoops. Again Rufus Darrington bowed to his lady, then turned to face the guests who had followed him into the garden. Sam saw speeches made. He saw congratulations given and received. He saw the laudation of a new power in the land, the acclamation of a new and powerful family rooting itself into a new soil in a new land. Every word, almost every thought, passed to his brain through his eyes—and his ears received not a sound, except for a strange murmur which seemed designed more to hold his attention than to convey any meaning.
Rufus Darrington turned again to the well designed to give water to the garden court. Darrington pulled off his gaily coloured, heavily laced coat and a footman stepped forward and received the garment reverently across his arm. He turned, and picked up the oaken bucket, lowering it into a well. Presently the rope on the windlass slackened its unwinding, shivering from the load far down into the earth.
Darrington pulled the rope sideways, with an expert jerk, and it stiffened. Then he caught the windlass-handle and commenced to wind in the rope. Minutes passed while Darrington strove at the windlass and the guests looked on with mild excitement, and then the bucket hove in sight. Darrington eased the rope, caught the handle of the bucket and rested it on the well-edge. Now through the group standing about the well came an old man in what Sam knew to be the Darrington livery. On a silver salver he carried before him a huge silver loving-cup. Bowing low before Darrington, he held out the salver while the lord of the manor raised the bucket and slowly poured the water into the cup. Taking the loving-cup in both hands Darrington slowly sipped the water, then held it out toward his lady. Almost as Mrs. Darrington's lips touched the edge of the cup it slipped from Darrington's hands to the ground, its contents splashing over Darrington's fine clothes and his lady's flowing dress.
A look of reproachful amazement came on Darrington's face, followed by a sudden infusion of blood to his face and a bellow of angry words from his lips. Lifting his foot, Darrington set it down hard on the loving-cup and ground the handsomely-chased silver pot to a shapeless mass. He turned to the house and roared some command at the top of his voice, and servitors hurried out, their faces drawn with alarm, carrying trays filled with glasses of wine. Rufus Darrington snatched at two of the glasses, handed one to his wife and raised the other to his lips, draining the contents at a gulp.
Quietly, quaintly, the scene changed. The gaily dressed throng of guests faded from the garden. The sun, inconsequently, moved back in the sky to early morning. From over the well the massive windlass, with its rope and bucket faded from sight. Even the flowers, the paths and the surrounding walls took on a more sombre tint. The windows of the reception rooms were open and as Sam gazed there Rufus Darrington and his lady descended the few steps into the garden. They came directly to the well, and stood there waiting.
Through the gate in the box-hedge came a little procession. It was headed by a couple of soldiers, their muskets to their shoulders. Behind them followed a group of convicts pulling on ropes attached to a low, flat cart. On the cart rested a massive bundle shrouded by a wide tarpaulin, then followed warders, convicts and finally a guard of soldiers. The procession came directly to the well-side, and stopped.
Two men, convicts, carrying a large square board came forward and laid it on the ground, other convicts came forward, bearing sacks. They poured the contents on the board and proceeded to mix mortar. When it was ready they spread the mortar thickly on top of the stone wall surrounding the well. Then, with enormous exertions, the convicts lifted the shrouded mass they had brought into the garden on the truck and set it on the mortar, sealing the well. Clearing away the tokens of their work, the convicts moved back down the garden, leaving Rufus Darrington, his wife, and the officer in command of the guard by the old well.
Rufus Darrington turned to his lady and bowed profoundly. Sam could see that he was speaking, and that he was speaking of the well and the foul water that had come from it. He made a request, motioning to the covered mass closing the well. Mrs. Darrington stepped forward, caught at one of the loose ropes and pulled strongly. Slowly the tarpaulin slipped from the mass it concealed, and Sam saw again the group of statuary that he first remembered in the old garden.
Now the scene changed again. The sky darkened and it became night. Cycles of years appeared to pass over the heavens. Neglect and disorder appeared in the gardens. The flowers and tended bushes disappeared and where once was orderliness now was only wandering bush and neglect. Rufus Darrington, the soldiers and the convicts had disappeared into the gloom. Above the gardens, and faintly illuminating them, hung the third quarter of a moon.
Some instinct drew Sam's watching eyes to the box-hedge guarding the garden on its easterly side. The hedge had grown greatly, and ragged. The gate had disappeared amid the long tendrils of the box. The garden seemed enclosed.
A section of the overgrown hedge moved, and swayed. An opening appeared and through it came an old man, dressed in ragged, travel-stained garments. As the old man lifted his head and glanced at the boarded windows of the old house, Sam recognised him. It was the Jay Bird.
Satisfied that he was not being overlooked, the Jay Bird came up the weed-choked paths, directly to the group of statuary. He knelt down and commenced to examine the base of the well carefully.
Very cautiously and quietly another man, better dressed and with his hat pulled low over his brows, came into the garden through the box-hedge gate. For a few seconds he paused, watching the old man at the well, then crept stealthily forward until he stood over and behind him.
Suddenly he spoke.
The Jay Bird sprang to his feet in sudden alarm. He faced the second man and, apparently, recognised him. For a moment they talked together in low, insistent tones, then anger came to him. For minutes they wrangled furiously, then, overcome with anger the Jay Bird sprang at his tracker's throat. They struggled furiously beside the old well. Suddenly the Jay Bird uttered a low cry—the one sound that pierced the strange silence that enveloped Sam through the three strange scenes—and fell heavily to the ground. The second man bent over the Jay Bird for an instant, then sprang to his feet, glanced at the old house, as if in alarm, then ran to the box-hedge gate, and disappeared.
The lethargy that had held Sam bound during the past minutes was suddenly relaxed. Knowledge came quickly. In that one glance the second man had cast at the old house, the newspaper-man had seen his features. He recognised him—the murderer of the Jay Bird. "By God!" he exclaimed suddenly.
"He's killed him!"
And, as he spoke the scene changed again. Sam found himself standing by the well, but there was no dead body at his feet, and the moonlight had disappeared. Long evening shadows lay across the gardens and over the west wing of the house glowered the deep colours of a setting sun.
"STEADY, boy!" A heavy hand fell on Sam's shoulder. He started, struggled and swayed. Firm hands caught him under his armpits and held him erect.
"Sam! Sam!" Leslie's voice pierced the mists that still clouded his brain. Shaking his head, in the effort to restore coherent thought, Sam looked down at the girl clinging to his arm, her frightened face raised to his.
"It's—it's all right, Leslie," he said shakily. "I—I've—"
"You've been walking in your sleep, young feller." Sergeant Adson's strong voice awoke the echoes of the garden. "Where on earth have you been to? We've searched the house through and through—and then came out here, to find you trying to get under that group of figures!"
Walking in his sleep! Had those phantasies he had witnessed of the years that had passed over the old house been but dreams? They must have been dreams, in spite of their seeming reality.
Leslie was beside him, and she was real and belonged to his age. He could not doubt that. And Sergeant Adson was real—certainly he was not of the stuff of which dreams were made! Yet, in some strange dimension he could not explain he had witnessed the building of the well in the garden court, the sealing of it, and the murder of the Jay Bird.
Curiously, he looked about the little circle of faces that watched. He looked down on Leslie. Standing by his side, her hand slipped in the crook of his arm—and he pressed her hand to his side. Beside him, a look of friendly concern on his big, red face was Sergeant Adson, and beyond him and around them were the faces of the constables the police officer had brought from Southbury for the search when he had learned that he, Sam, was missing.
"You've had a shock, boy," continued the police officer. "Don't you know where you've been?"
"In the attic." Sam spoke without thought. "The woman, Nyall, took me up there after I had been knocked insensible in the cellars."
"Attics? Cellars?" Sergeant Adson looked bewildered. "We haven't found attic or cellar in the place although we've searched the place again and again, for hours."
"I know them." Sam, his nerves quickly steadying, grinned down on the girl. "Leslie, I know more of your old home than you do. Presently I'll show you."
"That's all right, boy!" Sergeant Adson spoke soothingly. His glances and actions showed that he thought some chance blow or fall had bemused the newspaper-man's mind. "You've been walking in your sleep, y'know!"
"Nyall gave me something to drink—some drug. That was after she carried me from the cellars to the attic. She left me asleep—and I must have got up and found my way downstairs, and out here. I—"
"Yes?" Leslie spoke softly, holding up a warning hand against the sergeant. "Sam, what did you see?"
"I saw—" Sam laughed suddenly, irresponsibly. "Leslie, you'll think I'm mad, but I'm stating the simple, honest truth. I saw your ancestors, living in this house. They were celebrating the opening of the well, and the house was furnished and lit, and there were crowds of guests about, all garbed in the costumes of Rufus Darrington's day and these gardens were full of colour and glory. Then I saw—watched them—as they drank the new water—and—"
"If they sank a well here and found water, why did they close it?" asked Adson sceptically.
Somehow Sam had not considered that point before. He had seen Rufus Darrington turn from the well, spluttering and choleric after his first taste of the water, and the reasons for the gestures had not registered on his mind. Up to this moment he had looked upon the varying scenes of his dream as on a passing panorama, but—but—What meaning lay behind those incidents? Why had the old well been closed?
Because the water was bad. Rufus Darrington, despotic and hot-headed, had given orders to seal the well and conceal its site with the group of statuary—because the waters drawn from it were undrinkable! But, if the waters from the well were undrinkable, why had the Jay Bird wanted to re-open the well—and to open it in such a secret manner that what he discovered should only be known to himself? Why had he dug that tunnel to the well, piercing its walls and cutting steps in the under-soil to reach its bottom? Why had he come up to the gardens in the middle of the night, and examined the stone capping of the well?
Suddenly the meaning of the whole phantasy—the meaning behind the Jay Bird's actions—were clear in his mind. He knew. All the pieces of the strange mosaic of mystery he had gathered fell into place and the complete picture stood out, dazzling and amazing in its conception.
"I know!" Sam seized Leslie round the waist, whirling her about in a sudden frenzy of delight. "I know, Leslie. I've solved the whole mystery—the mystery of the Jay Bird's death, and the secret of your old home—the secret of your fortune—"
"Five hundred sovereigns!" Sergeant Adson grinned. "That's a fine fortune for a young lady. Why, it won't do more than buy a trousseau."
"There's more than that in it." Sam released Leslie and faced the police officer squarely. "Adson, I want you to keep a strict guard on this house and these grounds until we can get the law to work. There's a fortune here—a fabulous fortune—and it's all Leslie's! We've all been fooled, thinking the Jay Bird had found five hundred pieces of gold and was hunting for more. He wasn't. That gold, I believe, belonged to the Jay Bird. He had hidden it here, and in some manner had forgotten just where he had hidden it. When he found it, and I guess he needed it badly then, he came almost delirious with glee, and ran down to the hotel. No, the fortune—"
"Here!" The police officer seized Sam by the shoulders and shook him.
"Wake up, Laske! You're still dreaming!"
"No, I'm not." The newspaper-man wriggled from under the police officer's clutches. "Let me try and get this straight!
"The Jay Bird knew he was going to crash financially. Yet, at some date a little before this, he had come across Darrington House. The place had intrigued him and he had read up its history. The story of the opening and the sealing of the well intrigued him. Perhaps he came down here and made some sort of a search, trying to discover why the water had been proclaimed bad. Anyway, he had his suspicions and, knowing that he was going to be declared bankrupt, he gathered those five hundred sovereigns together and hid them here. He crashed, and faked a suicide, then came down here to hide. How he came to forget the location of his gold hoard, I'm not going to try and explain—but that's the only theory that fits into facts. I guess he wanted it for boring machinery—and when he couldn't find it went absolutely mad for his dreams of a new fortune, so much greater than his old, vanished with his gold. Then, a couple of days ago, he suddenly located his gold and we got on the trail of his secret."
"But what was he after?" asked Adson, in perplexity. "What is there in this old place that's so valuable?"
"The Jay Bird wasn't after yellow gold," said Sam solemnly. "He was after black gold—the black gold that gushes out of the earth in thick, oily streams!"
"Oil!" One of the listening constables exploded the word. "Then there's oil at old Darrington House!"
"There's oil here." Sam answered gravely. "The Jay Bird suspected it and went far to prove it. Old Rufus Darrington's action in sealing down the well of 'bad water' shows that the water was contaminated in some manner. Of course, they didn't suspect oil gushers in Australia in those days.
"The Jay Bird had suspected that 'bad water' might be water contaminated with oil. To test his theory—the only way he could test it secretly—he bored the tunnel from the foundations of the old house to the well. He tapped the well and found the water. He found out that his theory was right, then set to work to put down some sort of a bore—and it was for that necessary machinery he had cached the gold. He came up here, to this garden, the night he was murdered, to see if this stone sealing the well was strong enough to form the head of a derrick."
"What's all this about?" A loud, gruff voice spoke from outside the interested circle about Sam. "I'm not going to have all you people trespassing about my property. Get that! Policemen, you? Well, if you're policemen you should know better than to come trespassing on a man's land."
Jess Markham, closely followed by Arthur Parkinson, thrust through the group beside the old well. Pushing a man aside, he came face to face with Sam.
"You? I told you to keep off my property. Now, get out or I'll throw you out on the main road myself. Here, you—" He turned viciously on Sergeant Adson. "Don't you know your duty? Turn these people off my land and take your police-foals away—or I'll have something to say to your superintendent next time I go to Southbury."
"But—they've found oil!" blurted one of the listening constables.
Jess Markham turned swiftly on the man. "What's that?" he growled. "Well, if they've found oil, it's my oil, isn't it?"
"It's mine." Arthur Parkinson thrust his lean face forward. "Sergeant Adson, I hold a lease of this house and the surrounding ground and there's a clause in the lease giving me everything found on the property."
Sam laughed suddenly. "How long have you been here, Parkinson?" he asked quietly. "What's that got to do with you?"
The man flushed hotly. "I've been here all the afternoon, and I find that you're neglecting the duty you are paid by me to perform. You're fired! Understand that?—and get off this property at once."
"I'm fired!" Again Sam laughed. "Well, before I go, tell me when you came to Barralong?"
"I came to see Mr. Markham this afternoon, and then he told me of the murder. Then I came on here to see that the interests of my newspaper were not suffering in your hands. I didn't trust you, you damned young-city whipper-snapper!"
"Since when have you ceased to be a city whipper-snapper?" asked the journalist pleasantly. "That's rather an awkward question, isn't it, Mister Thomas Dinkier?"
For a moment Parkinson gaped at Sam, then his face flushed with anger and he charged forward. Sergeant Adson's stiffened arm brought him up with a jerk.
"None of that!" commanded the police officer.
"What's all this, Mr. Laske? What did you call this man?"
"At present he calls himself Arthur Parkinson, and he is the proprietor of the Southbury Valuator. Some years ago, in Sydney, he wore the name of Thomas Dinkier, and was a company promoter and an associate of Solomon Birder."
"Ridiculous!" Jess Markham took a step forward. "I'll answer for Mr. Parkinson's integrity and character."
"You have enough to do to look after your own affairs." Sam turned on the farmer, anger shining in his eyes. "Parkinson, or Dinkier, whichever you prefer, says you gave him a lease of this house and lands. The Public Trustee will want to know why and how that lease was given, and who pocketed the consideration?"
"The Public Trustee?" Jess Markham stared.
"Just so," said Sam. "I had a talk to my news-editor this morning and he told me that it was common knowledge that when old Matthew Parker—the solicitor and your co-trustee under Mrs. Cantle's will—died, he appointed the Public Trustee in his place. Got that, Mr. Jess Markham, and you thought that with old Parker dead you had everything in your hands. Now you know why the Public Trustee will ask questions. He'll want to know why you gave a lease of Miss Cantle's property without consulting him—and perhaps a lot more."
"Well, you can't hold that over me," blustered Parkinson. "I'm going to act on the lease I hold and for which I've paid. I took the lease in good faith and if Markham hadn't the right to grant it, that's his look-out. Until the question of validity is settled by the courts I'm going to claim my rights valid."
He turned to Sergeant Adson. "Now, Sergeant, you know the law. I've a lease of these lands and the house and I want these people turned off them right away."
"So that you shall have ample opportunity to stake out a claim for an oil-bearing lease," retorted Sam sweetly. "Not a bit of it, Arthur dear! And, by the way, aren't you slightly mistaken regarding the time you came to Barralong? Last night I was standing before the hotel in Barralong and saw a motor car turn in at Markham's gate. Can you assure me that wasn't your car?"
"It was." Leslie spoke suddenly. "Mrs. Markham told me Mr. Parkinson stayed at her house the night before I came down here."
"Then you saw him, Leslie?" asked Sam eagerly.
"No, he was not at the house when I arrived home." The girl spoke simply. "But I know he was there, for Mrs. Markham had put him to sleep in my old room and all his things were there, when I went into the room to change."
"That's something for you to answer." Sam turned swiftly on the newspaper-proprietor. "You followed the Jay Bird to Barralong and came to Darrington House during the night—the night the Jay Bird was murdered."
"Here!" Sergeant Adson broke in. "This is getting serious, Mr. Laske. Are you accusing Mr. Parkinson of—"
"I am accusing Arthur Parkinson, otherwise Thomas Dinkier, of causing the Jay Bird's death, by stabbing him with a knife." Sam paused, then continued. "Look here, Adson, you'll have to take my word for it, for the moment. When we have a chance to talk, I'll put all my clues before you. I—I saw Thomas Dinkier, or as he prefers to be known now, Arthur Parkinson, murder the Jay Bird."
Parkinson's violently shouted denials were stifled as the constables closed in on him. He called on Jess Markham to support a series of incoherent assertions. But Markham was facing difficulties of his own and was not prepared to perjure himself for a man who but a few moments before had been prepared to sacrifice him over the lease of the house and grounds. In answer to Sergeant Adson's quick and pertinent question, he admitted the truth of Leslie's statements regarding Parkinson's arrival at his home.
When the commotion had in some measure subsided, and Parkinson and Markham had left the house under police escort for Southbury, Sam and Leslie wandered down the old garden court. For long minutes they were silent. Then:
"Well, you won't have to go back to Sydney and sweat on any beastly newspaper," said Sam suddenly and gruffly.
"No." A long pause and the girl spoke again:
"Sam, dear, when you locate a mining claim don't you have to stake it and put up a notice?"
"I suppose so." Sam stared perplexedly at the girl. "Jove, Leslie, I nearly forgot about that and let you down. Why, after what I've already said, anyone could stake a claim here."
"I suppose a girl can stake a claim?" asked Leslie, doubtfully.
"Why not? A girl's got all the privileges of a man—and then some!"
Enthusiastically, Sam dragged a pad of copy paper out of his pocket and sought for a pencil.
"Here, I'll soon—"
"Let me. You tell me what to write." Leslie took the pencil and paper from the newspaper-man's hands and stood squarely facing him. "Now go on. No, don't look, or you'll make me nervous."
In very exact terms, and with the secret hope that the notice would be sufficiently valid until he could get to a lawyer and have the form drafted in proper order, Sam dictated a rough statement of the oil-find. The girl wrote quickly. Then she tore the sheet from the pad, and thrust paper and pencil into the young man's hand.
"Now, where do we post it, Sam?" Then, impulsively: "I know! On the old well!"
She ran down the garden to the old well, Sam following much more slowly. At the well-side, Leslie was joined by Sergeant Adson, who had returned to the gardens from the house. The police officer bent and read the notice. He straightened as Sam came up and held out his hand.
"Congratulations, Mr. Laske. I hope you've found a real gusher."
"Miss Cantle's well, you mean." Sam grinned wryly. He hated to think of the girl with all the money the oil would pour into her lap.
"I—I second your hope, heartily." Sergeant Adson, grinning broadly waved a large-sized hand at the well. Turning quickly, he marched toward the house, his big shoulders shaking with laughter.
Much puzzled, Sam bent down to read the notice he had dictated. The wording was much different to what he had intended. In fact he could not find one sentence that was his own.
It read: "This is an oil-well, and there's oil all round here. It was found by Mr. Samuel Laske and belongs to him. I won't have it. Leslie Cantle."
"But, Leslie—" Sam turned to face the girl, his face red.
"You—you can't do that!"
"I've done it, and that's all that is to be said on the subject," declared the girl, determinedly. "I own the house and you own the oil-well—that's fair, isn't it?"
"But you can't, Leslie. I can't take it!"
"Can't you?" For once in her young life Leslie seemed unable to find the right words for what she wanted to say.
"If—if that don't suit you, Sam, can you—can you offer a—a better suggestion?"
Sergeant Adson had by this time reached the house. He turned on the window steps and called: "See you down at the hotel later, Laske?" Then as a parting thrust: "You can let me know then where to send the wedding present."
"There," said Leslie. "You heard that!"
In a vegetable garden, under proper cultivation, Sam's face would well have been mistaken for a fully ripe beetroot.
He caught at the girl's hands. "Leslie, I'm only a poor devil of a working journalist, possibly without a job and—"
"And with a fine oil-well and—"
Leslie's colour matched Sam's. "Oh, I know I'm taking a big risk, Sam. But then, all girls do when they get married. They meet a boy and think he's—nice. It's only after he's proposed and they're pledged to marry him that they notice his faults. Now, just think I've got engaged to a boy I thought was awfully nice—only to find that he doesn't know how to—to kiss the girl he's engaged to."
But, like many another woman, Leslie Cantle, when dealing with mankind, found her ideas were sadly mistaken.
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