J. M. (James Morgan) Walsh.

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way, for the ground was very slippery and more than once I almost lost
my footing, to give more than a passing thought to personal discomfort.
It was too dark to see more than an inch or so in front of us, and even
then we saw nothing more than a black wall that constantly receded as we
advanced and yet was still as near as ever in the end. I don't think any
of us realised that we had drifted into a gully or a track of some sort
until I put out a tentative hand and felt a wall of bushes dead in front
of me. I pulled back with a jerk, but my sudden movement startled the
others, and in the flurry of the moment they did the very thing I had
been trying to avoid. They slipped and I went with them. I had sense
enough to release Moira's hand the moment I felt the drag of her body,
and then, before I quite knew what had happened. I found I was whirling
along in the mud, cavorting down the side of something that looked, or
felt - for I couldn't see, as I've already stated - very much like the
edge of a precipice. I brought up, just when I was beginning to wonder
how much further I had to fall, by colliding with something that felt
very like a hedge of brambles. There I lay in the soaking rain, with the
mud plastered thickly on my face, and every bit of breath knocked out of
my body.

Somehow it seemed quieter down here. The wind still whistled and roared,
but it was some feet or more above my head and it touched me not.
Presently I began to sit up and wonder where I was and what had happened
and what had become of the others. I felt very stiff and wet and dirty,
and my right knee ached more than I liked. I was just on the point of
staggering to my feet and feeling my way to leveller ground, when quite
close to me I heard something very like a moan. I dropped on my knees at
that and put out a tremulous hand. My fingers touched something soft and
cold, and then I realised that it was a human face - Moira's, judging by
the tangle of hair. I put my hand under the head and raised it up. A
heavy mass of loose hair fell damply about my arm, and I knew then that
it was my sweetheart I held. She stirred a little and moaned again. I
was in a quandary. Clearly something must be done, but how or what I
could no more say that I could fly. The night and the storm had
swallowed Cumshaw up for the time being, but, beyond wondering vaguely
what had become of him, I never gave him a thought. All my life long I'd
been too used to men taking care of themselves to worry myself much
about my missing colleague. But Moira's case was insistent and called
for immediate attention. If there had been any shelter handy, even the
rudest of bark humpies, I would have known what to do, and, what is
more, I would have done it on the instant. Obviously the only course I
could take was to crawl in under the ledge or precipice, or whatever it
was, down which we had fallen and trust to the overhang - if there was
any - and the few bushes that I had crashed through as I spun down, to
keep the worst of the rain off us.

Accordingly I rose to my feet and lifted Moira up in my arms. She was a
greater weight than I had thought, and that and my own condition caused
me to walk with the uneven steps of a drunken man. At last I found some
sort of recess in the side of the slope - I came across it more by
accident than of set purpose - and there I crouched with Moira between me
and the wall. The rain whirled in on me, and, if possible, I got a
trifle wetter than before, but I had the satisfaction of knowing that my
body kept both the rain and the wind away from her. It was a tedious
enough job, holding the unconscious girl in my arms, and more than once
I felt like dropping her, only that I recollected in time that I was
crouching ankle deep in mud. I am stronger than the average, and I have
had my body trained in hard schools, but even that has not made a
Hercules of me. I was more than glad when she opened her eyes, or,
rather, when she moved a little in my arms and then spoke.

She was not hurt much, she said in answer to my question, but she felt
stiff in every limb, and the dampness seemed to have soaked through to
her very bones. How was I, and what had happened?

I answered the two questions in almost the same breath. Brevity is not
only the soul of wit, but it is the sole method of carrying on a
conversation when both parties are wet and shivering.

"Have you any idea where we are?" Moira asked.

I shook my head and then, remembering that my answer was unintelligible
in the darkness, I said, "I haven't. We fell over a cliff or a
precipice, and that's all I can say about it."

"Why," she said, "you're shivering!" And she put out her hand to touch
me. Her fingers came to rest on my arm, and I could feel her stiffen in
the dark.

"Jim, why did you do it?" she demanded, with yet a curious softness in
her voice.

"Do what?" I fenced.

"As if I don't know that you're in your shirt sleeves. That's your coat
that's wrapped round me."

"What if it is?"

"You shouldn't have done it. You'll catch your death of cold."

"Much chance there is of that," I grunted.

She was silent for a time, and then I felt her arms about me, and I
realised that she was trying to place my coat about my shoulders.

"If that's what you're after," I said, "I'll put it on. But you'll catch
cold yourself."

She made no direct answer, but I heard something that sounded curiously
like a sob.

Presently she moved up closer to me and a soft voice whispered in my
ear, "Jim, I'll be warmer if you'll let me snuggle up to you. It's a
long time since last ... I didn't deserve it then."

I reached out in the darkness and drew her towards me. With her tired
head resting on my shoulder we waited for the dawn.

It was a long time coming, how long I cannot say, for in my then state
of nervous tension the hours dragged with the awful unendingness of
eternity. At last the black wall of night cracked into streaks of grey,
looking for all the world like feeble sun-rays filtering through the
chinks in the roof of a deserted house. Moira stirred a little, and I
saw in one hasty glance that her wet hair was streaming about her face
and her saturated dress was caked with black mud.

I held her off at arm's length and looked her over quizzically. Then we
each laughed outright at the sight the other presented.

"You're wet through, Moira," I said, "and you look as if you've been
having a mud-bath. All the same you're a brick to have stood it all the
way you have."

"I'm not and I haven't," she said cryptically, and silenced my further
objections with a kiss.

When I looked out on the world again it was to see that the day had
already broken, and a dirty and bedraggled Albert Cumshaw was making his
way towards us with slow and painful steps.




CHAPTER IV.

WE ENTER THE VALLEY.


I cannot explain why just at that instant my heart gave a thump. There
was nothing for it to thump about. Cumshaw, toiling up the slope, for
all his woe-begone look, was the most ordinary figure imaginable, and
there was nothing in the landscape to excite or rivet attention. It was
a white dawn, and, though the rain had ceased long before, everything
was still dull and grey. In the hollows the mist lingered and hung
between us and the further view like a great white curtain. That and the
advancing Albert Cumshaw completed the picture, a picture that was
neither interesting nor sensational. Yet at the sight, as I've already
stated, my heart jumped queerly and unaccountably. Do coming events
really ever cast their shadows before them? Are we sometimes granted
visions of "the things beyond the dome?" I do not know, and, even if I
did, I would not care to express a definite opinion in my own case. I
have seen things dangerously like coincidences happen so often in my own
experience that I have grown chary of either affirming or denying that
there is something more than chance at the bottom of it all. Still the
fact remains that twice within twenty-four hours the same queer feeling
crept over me, and on each occasion the course of events proved that it
was premonition. But that is running a shade ahead of the story.

I ran down the slope to meet Cumshaw, and the first thing I noticed was
that there was a great livid bruise across his right temple.

"You've got a nasty knock there on your forehead," I greeted him, in the
casual self-contained fashion of the men who live in the open.

He answered me with one of those laughs that are nothing more than
almost soundless chuckles.

"Is it hurting?" I enquired with a trace of anxiety in my voice.

"Hurting, hell!" he said impolitely. "Of course it is."

"How did you do it? Was it an accident?"

"I don't look as if I did it just for amusement, do I?" he snarled.

"It hasn't improved your temper, my lad," I said under my breath. Aloud
I remarked: "We're all in much the same boat. Miss Drummond's had a
stiff time of it, and I've got all my bruises where you can't see them,
but I can assure you that they hurt all the same."

At the mention of Moira a shadow passed over his face. Frankly I could
not quite understand his attitude towards her. At first I was rather of
the opinion that he was in love with her, but latterly I hadn't been so
sure, for he had had the decency to suppress his feelings once he found
how the land lay. The mere mention of her name calmed him down
wonderfully. He even seemed a little ashamed of his outbursts of temper.

"I might have remembered that I wasn't the only one in the party," he
said. "But then I came a fearful cropper, and on top of it I've been out
in the rain all night."

"We were a little luckier." I told him. "We found an overhang and that
kept off most of the rain. All the same I wouldn't mind a chance of
drying myself."

"And we're likely to get that," he said with some asperity. "All our
goods are God knows how many miles behind. I've got a box of matches in
my pocket, but they're just about as useful here as they would be at the
bottom of the sea."

"Come now," I said, "it's not as bad as all that. We've got a lady to
take care of, and we've got to shuffle our brains about a bit and see
what we can do. We'll never get anywhere by standing still railing at
our fate."

"Well, you're in charge, Carstairs," he told me. "It's up to you."

"It is," I admitted, "and as the first step towards success I might
point out to you that the mist is lifting."

He wheeled round at that with greater agility than I expected, seeing
that by his own account he was still feeling pretty dicky. The mist was
lifting in truth, and yellow spears of sunlight were thrusting
themselves through like hat pins run through cloth.

"It'll be the better part of half an hour before the place's clear," he
asserted, with one eye cocked at the sky and the other watching me.

"In the meanwhile we'd better go back to Miss Drummond and set her mind
at rest," I suggested.

He trudged along at my elbow with a step that lacked its usual buoyancy,
but the sidelong glances I stole at him every now and then showed me
that he was fast recovering his spirits. The bruise on his forehead,
seen now close at hand and in a better light, was not the fearsome thing
I had at first taken it to be. True, it lent him an air of general
disrepute, but then none of us were quite fit for the drawing-room. Even
Moira, sheltered as she had been, showed very much the worse for wear.
She greeted Cumshaw with a cheery smile, the bravest thing about her I
thought, and a ready question as to his adventures. But he could tell
her little more than that he had gone over the edge with us and rolled
away until he brought up against the stone or whatever it was that had
bruised his face so nicely. Our own story, what there was of it, was
soon told, and a few glances about us showed that in the murk of the
night and rain we had missed our footing and shot off the track a dozen
feet or so to the level ground below. Above us waved the tall shapes of
kingly gums, and below us lay vast spaces of bracken. Beyond that we
could form little idea as to our position, though the mist was slowly
drifting away now.

"The best thing to do, I suppose," I remarked, "is to get back to last
night's camping-place and see what we can find of the stores. Of course
we shouldn't have left them, but it's no use being wise after the event.
We've to go back as quick as we can now, and maybe we can dig up
something warm. That's supposing that everything isn't too wet to be
used."

"As I remarked before, it's up to you," Cumshaw threw at me. "Lead on,
Carstairs."

"If you can show me any way back to the main track, I'll lead on with
pleasure," I told him. "There's none visible that I can see, and I don't
fancy that my eyes are over dull."

Cumshaw said something under his breath, but before I could drop on him
for it Moira interposed. "How about walking round at the foot of this
ridge and seeing where it'll lead us to?" she suggested.

"That's as fine a plan as any," I answered. "We'll try it."

We did. We sauntered along listlessly for the best part of an hour, and
then it struck me all of a sudden that we were rising rapidly.

"We're on the wrong track," I said, stopping short. "We didn't come down
as steep a slope as this last night."

"You're right there, Carstairs. We didn't," Cumshaw said, stopping short
and looking about him with a puzzled air.

"Why not keep right on?" Moira advised. "It's just possible that we're
working back to the track."

"We'll give it a chance," I said, after chewing the suggestion over in
silence for a few minutes. "We'll keep on for ten minutes or so, and if
it gets any worse we can always go back."

The ground became rougher at every step and finally in despair I called
a halt. The sun was well up by this and the mist had cleared away from
the hills, though filmy vapors still lingered in what I knew must be the
hollows. In front was a causeway, strewn with boulders, and beyond that
what I took to be a sea of wattles. I could see no use in progressing
further in that direction, and I said so as succinctly as I could.
Cumshaw was inclined to argue, but the consensus of opinion was against
him. The outcome of it was that we decided to retrace our steps. Before
we did so I suggested looking about for something that would give us an
indication of our present position.

I stumbled on it quite by accident. Another step further and I would
have fallen down the funnel-shaped opening that gaped at my feet. I drew
back just in time to save myself, and for the second time that morning
my heart gave a jump. To think that we had gone so close to missing it
altogether! The thing, so to speak, had lain at our feet all the time. I
turned about and searched the landscape for my companions. Moira was
visible in the near distance; the wattles had swallowed Cumshaw.

"Cumshaw, Moira, I've found it!" I called at the top of my voice.

Moira whipped round at the sound of my voice. I waved to her and she
came running towards me. A second later I saw Cumshaw come out of the
shadows, and I yelled at him with all the power of my lungs. I don't
know what he must have thought of the yelling, dancing, frantically
waving figure that caught his eye. He must have fancied for a moment
that I had gone mad. Then, in a flash, so he says, the truth dawned on
him, and he in his turn sprinted towards me, the one idea uppermost in
his mind being that the valley must have been found. At the same instant
my soul was singing "Eureka!" and Moira was weeping and laughing at the
same time.

"Cumshaw," I cried, as he came within speaking distance, "if that's not
the funnel that your father and Bradby left the valley by you can call
me a goggle-eyed Chinaman."

And then somehow we all seemed to be talking together.

"That must be the valley down under the wattles."

"I knew we'd find it."

"It only shows that one should never give in."

"If we hadn't fallen down that slope last night...."

"If I hadn't kept going when you all wanted to turn back, you mean."

"It's found now and that's the best part of it."

I must confess that I lost my head just as the others did. I should have
known better, I suppose, than to go yelling out our discovery at the top
of my lungs, but knowing's one thing and doing's altogether different.
I've seen miners on the Lakekamu shouting themselves hoarse over even
less of a discovery, seasoned men who knew how and when to hold their
tongues. Could tyros like ourselves be blamed for what we did? I don't
think so.

"That's the funnel right enough," Cumshaw said. "There can't possibly be
two of the same kind in the same district. I'm sure this is the one;
it's been described too often to me for there to be any mistake about
it. But what's puzzling me is the valley. There doesn't seem to be much
of one here. All I can see is wattles, wattles whichever way I look."

"There's one way to settle it," I said in an aside to him, and I looked
at Moira.

He gathered from my warning glance that I had something to say I didn't
want her to hear, so he shifted out of earshot with me.

"There's things you don't want a girl to see," I explained as we walked
off; "but if this is the valley the skeletons of those two horses should
be down there somewhere," and I pointed over the edge of the funnel.

"I'll go down," he said with alacrity. "I guess it's my go. It's time I
took some sort of a risk."

"You surely don't expect there'll be anything wrong?" I queried.

"I can't say," he answered with a shrug of his shoulders. "Anyway, I
think you'd better get back to Miss Drummond. She's looking over this
way, and in a minute or so she'll be asking awkward questions, if you
don't go and tell her something."

"All right," I agreed. "Look as slippy as you can, but be careful. An
injured man is always more or less of a nuisance, you know."

He grinned cheerfully at that, and then, without another word, turned on
his heel and made off towards the funnel. I walked back to Moira.

"What are you going to do now?" she asked me suspiciously. "What's Mr.
Cumshaw after?"

"He's going down through that funnel-shaped thing," I answered. "He
wants to see what's at the end of it."

The golden-brown eyes regarded me thoughtfully for a space and then:
"Why didn't you go yourself instead of sending him?" she asked.

"It was his suggestion," I said defensively. "He seemed to think he had
a better right than anyone else, so I didn't argue with him about it. I
let him go."

"We could all have gone," she hinted.

"We could have," I agreed, "but we didn't."

In the meantime Cumshaw had lowered himself carefully down into the
opening, felt about a bit with his feet, found a foothold, and then
swung easily down from projecting ledge to projecting ledge. He emerged
quite unexpectedly into a tangled mass of wattle. That puzzled him much,
as it had puzzled me a few minutes previously; the elder Cumshaw's tale
contained no mention of wattle save the golden barrier at the further
side of the valley. Yet here was wattle as far as the eye could reach.
It looked as if a generous scientist, like the man in H. G. Wells' "Food
of the Gods," had let loose some power capable of forcing on this
abnormal growth. The valley itself was in an undulating sea of
vegetation. Had it been early in September the place would have been a
vast expanse of golden glory, but as it was late March the dominant
color note was that of grey-green. Under the circumstances it was as
clear as daylight how the elder man had missed the place. It was buried
under the rank growth, and all definable features, as we learnt
later - everything that could be used as a leading mark - had disappeared
or been swamped by the wattles. The bushes were not so thick about the
lower entrance to the funnel as to impede Cumshaw's movements, and so he
began to look about him in the hope of locating the one thing that would
definitely identify the place. The horses had been shot close to the
wall of rock, and it was a practical certainty that some trace of their
bodies would be found in the vicinity. Ten minutes' close search brought
to light a pile of bones that might or might not be those of the missing
animals - Cumshaw had no knowledge of anatomical structure and so did not
feel quite clear on that point - but the remarkable feature about them in
his eyes was that they were all more or less blackened, and amongst them
he found a heap of lime-dust, which he took to be bones reduced to their
elemental form by the application of great heat. Still he felt justified
in regarding the identity of the place as being sufficiently
established, and without wasting any more time he returned the way he
had come.

"There's no doubt about it," I agreed when I heard his tale. "This is
the valley right enough. I vote on going down there at once. The old hut
can't be far away, and it'll be somewhere for us to camp in and fix up
our clothes. And that reminds me that one of us'll have to go back for
our stores and extra clothes. There's no need for both of us to go; one
will do. However that can wait until we find the hut."

"I'm not hungry," Moira said, "and I think my clothes are practically
dry. The sun's coming out now, and I don't see why we should feel any
the worse for last night's adventures if we only take reasonable care of
ourselves."

"If that's the case," I remarked, "let us go down by all means."

I sent Cumshaw down first, as he was the only one of us who was familiar
with the place, and then I handed Moira down to him. Or, rather, I
helped her down; Moira at the best of times is no light weight. For a
moment we stood blinking at the entrance to the funnel, and then Moira
caught my arm in her impulsive way and cried, "Come on, Jim! Let's enter
into Paradise!"

I smiled at her quaintness and made to follow her, but Cumshaw
interposed quickly. "Not that way," he said. "This is the way." He
glanced at me as he spoke, and I realised that he was taking us by a
path that would lead us away from the mouldering bones.

The ground was rough underfoot, and the matted cover of vegetation that
effectually hid stray boulders from view made it all the worse. In
places the wattle grew over our heads in a profusion that was almost
tropical, and more than once we would have lost our way had I not taken
our bearings at the start, and thus was able to guide the party by means
of my pocket-compass.

"In your father's day there was a wood hereabouts," I said to Cumshaw
presently. "There doesn't seem to be one now."

"There doesn't," he said. "Can you understand how practically the entire
physical features of the place have changed so much?"

"Frankly I can't. But they apparently have, and that's about all we can
say. We'll just have to keep our eyes open and trust to luck."

"Our luck seems to have held good so far," Moira said, turning to me
with high hope in her face.

"Mind your footing," I said warningly. "You want to watch every inch of
the way. There's all sorts of rocks and boulders under this stuff."

"I'll be careful," she smiled, and scarcely were the words out of her
mouth than her foot caught in something. She pitched forward on her face
before I could spring to her assistance. I lifted her up carefully, but
she seemed none the worse for her fall.

"I don't know what it was that tripped me," she confided. "It wasn't a
boulder or anything of the sort. I think it was a log of wood, yet my
foot seemed to catch underneath it."

I was on the point of offering a suggestion, but something held me
silent, and instead I dropped down on my knees and felt feverishly in
the undergrowth. Of course it was a silly thing to do - there might have
been snakes and all manner of noxious crawling things there - but I
didn't think of that at the time. I was too intent on solving the
riddle. My hand touched something.... I straightened up and faced the
others.

"Moira and Cumshaw," I said. "I've found the hut. That's a piece of it
there." Bending down, I dragged to light a rough-hewn beam that possibly
had been the threshold plank. It was weather-worn, and in places the
fungus had grown thickly on it; but I could see for all that that it had
been warped and twisted and charred in the blaze of a fire. Three pairs
of eyes met across the plank, and three lips put the same idea into
words.

"There's been a fire here," we said in chorus.

"And that," I added on my own account, for the benefit of the others who
had not jumped to the same conclusion as I had, "and that explains
everything that's puzzled us since we entered the valley. There's been a


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Online LibraryJ. M. (James Morgan) WalshThe lost valley → online text (page 14 of 16)