J. M. (James Morgan) Walsh.

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sailed over the bridge and up Moorabool-street. We cleared a stationary
tram by inches, twisted in an S curve to avoid a farmer's waggon and
then, with a heart-rending grind, Bryce threw over his clutch and slowed
down to a snail-like crawl of ten miles an hour.

"This asphalt paving makes a great motor track," Bryce said to me, "but
there's speed-laws in existence here. That's the trouble of it. When a
man has a nice track he's interfered with, and when there isn't anyone
to meddle with him it's ten to one that he's crawling over something
like a corduroy road."

"Corduroy!" I said, and sat up and looked at him. I knew what he meant.
Any man who has ever travelled the heart-breaking log-roads of the
interior New Guinea goldfields does not need to be told what 'corduroy'
is. It is an ever-present memory, an astonishment and a nightmare. Bryce
did not speak from hearsay - the note in his voice told me that - but was
talking from experience garnered at great cost, both of money and
energy.

"Corduroy," he repeated after me. "Doesn't that sound familiar to you,
Carstairs?"

"It does," I said with emphasis. "But how the deuce - - ?" And then I
stopped dead. Bryce? Bryce? What was familiar about that name? Bryce and
New Guinea and - - . I had it. And Walter Carstairs.

"Ever heard of Walter Carstairs?" I questioned.

"The minute I heard your name I knew you," Bryce said. "Ever heard of
Walter Carstairs? Why, he was the best friend I ever had. He saved my
life in the early days of the Woodlarks."

"According to the Dad," I said, looking him straight in the face, "it
was the other way about."

He laughed happily. "Jimmy, I'm losing my memory if that's so. But
whatever happened to him? I lost sight of him the last ten years or so."

"You would," I answered. "He stuck to the Islands. He had a life's work
planned out, but he got cut-off in the Solomons before he had reached
finality. I carried it on after that, came all the way from the Klondyke
to take it up. I got through but it took every penny I had, and that's
why this morning when I came across you I only had a boot and a half to
my feet."

"Well, well," he said kindly, "that's all changed now."

"I don't know so much about it," I told him. "You might have been the
best friend the Dad ever had, but that doesn't say you're going to keep
me. What I get I work for. I'll take charity from no man living."

Again he laughed, and his fat face crinkled up into little rolls of
flesh until he looked as if he had double chins all the way up to his
eyes. I knew now why he had been so familiar with me earlier in the day.
He was a sunny-natured old chap always, even in the hard, toilsome New
Guinea days, and I suppose his heart went out to me as the son of an old
comrade in arms, doubly so - perhaps because I had saved his life. On the
whole I rather wished I hadn't. It complicated matters so. It made me
feel bound to give him a hand, whether his enterprise was shady or not.

If he had turned to me then and said, "I suppose I can count on you all
right?" I would have been torn between duty and inclination. He did
nothing of the sort. He made no reference to his offer of service, in
fact he seemed to have completely forgotten it, and I thought it just as
well to say nothing. The way he forebore from seizing a perfectly
obvious advantage sent him up fifty per cent. in my estimation, and by
the time we had reached the heart of the city I was quite willing to do
anything he asked me.

"I'll park the car," he said, "and then we'll go off and have some
dinner."

"Will we?" I said and eyed my tattered raiment ruefully. "I don't fancy
I'm dressed for dinner."

"Um!" he said. "You're not. I'd quite overlooked that. That bars a
public dinner. I don't fancy you'll be able to make much of one if you
come down to my place. The cook's away. I didn't expect to be back so
soon."

"Cook or no cook," I told him, "if you've got anything eatable in the
house I'll guarantee to turn it up right. Give me the run of the kitchen
and put me next to the meat-safe, and you'll see wonders. I don't know
how you feel, but I'm so hungry that I'd make a meal off a pair of kid
boots."

"In that case, Carstairs, I think I'd better take you home and see what
sort of a culinary expert you are."

With that he twisted the car about and headed out for the eastern
suburbs. The place was unfamiliar to me at the time - I hadn't the
faintest idea of the street the man lived in - and in the face of what
happened later I made no enquiries. As a matter of fact the rush of
events crowded all such petty details out of my mind.

"Can you drive a car?" he asked abruptly.

"I can drive anything but an Andean mule," I told him. "I tried once in
the Chilian foot-hills, but after the animal dislocated my shoulder I
sort of lost heart."

"I gather from the retiring modesty of your last remark," he smiled,
"that you consider yourself an expert as regards all other forms of
animal and mechanical traction."

"Quite so. I can always do anything on principle, and I've yet to meet
the job that I'm unwilling to tackle!"

He glanced sideways at me. I didn't like the look he gave me. There was
too much of appraisement in it, something that was alien to the nature
of the man, a sort of cold, calculating shrewdness that made me wonder
again if I had not been mistaken in my estimate of him and the extent of
his good-nature.

"If you keep on admiring me instead of looking where you're going," I
hinted, "you'll end up in a funeral. That motor-bus isn't the sort of
thing I'd care to hit."

He twisted the wheel over a fraction and edged out beyond the motor-bus
before he replied. "Life is full of thrills," he remarked when at last
we reached the comparative security of open space. There was a challenge
in his voice that I thought it well to ignore.

"It is," I agreed. "Too much so."

For all the lightness of his speech and the careless ease with which he
took unnecessary and avoidable risks I had a feeling that there was deep
design under everything he did. Though I couldn't have proved it if I'd
been asked, I felt sure that he was trying my nerve. After all there's
no better test of that than the crowded traffic of a big city. I've met
men who'd cheerfully face a crowd of howling cannibals and yet would
develop a very bad case of jumps if asked to cross a street roaring and
humming with traffic. Yes, clearly he was testing me.

With a jerk that nearly shot me out of my seat the car pulled up. I
stared about me. We had stopped outside a substantial red-tiled house,
built in the bungalow fashion. There was a well-kept lawn in front of
it, with here and there a trim flower-bed to relieve the monotony of the
expanse of grass.

"This is the place," Bryce said. "Just slip down and open that gate,
will you?"

He gesticulated towards a six-foot gate at the side of the house. From
my position in the car I could see that it opened on a path that ran
round the side of the building and almost certainly led to the garage.
Accordingly I slipped out on the road, walked up to the gate and found
that, by standing on tip-toe, I could just reach the catch at the top. I
swung it back, pushed with my weight against the erection and the gate
came open.

As I turned to come back to the car I caught sight of a man standing on
the opposite corner. He was engaged in lighting a cigarette in the cup
of his hands. He seemed to be taking an undue time over it, and that and
something that I could not put a name to in his attitude convinced me
that he was watching us. His hands were so cupped that they hid his
face, but I received an impression, that was almost a certainty, that he
was watching Bryce and myself through his fingers. Perhaps my prolonged
stare convinced him that I was fully aware of his presence and its
meaning. At any rate he twisted on his heel so that his back was turned
to us, dropped the match he had been playing with and ostentatiously
struck another.

"That gentleman across the road, the one with his back to us, is keeping
your house under surveillance," I said to Bryce. "I suppose he's afraid
the place'll run away."

"Afraid I'll run away, more likely," Bryce answered. "Evidently he
doesn't want to be identified next time we meet. But he needn't worry
over that; I wouldn't know him from a bar of soap. We'll leave him alone
for the time being, Carstairs, and get this machine in. I don't see any
reason why we should let this gentleman delay our dinner."

"No more do I. Let her out."

I stood on the step of the car until it had passed the entrance in
safety, then I went back and made the gate fast. But before doing so I
just couldn't resist taking a peep at the Roman sentry figure of a man
opposite. He was staring straight at the gate - as if that was going to
help him in any way - but he was pretty alert. The moment he sighted me
he wheeled about and walked off in another direction. But, quick and all
as he was, I caught a passing glimpse of him. He had on a blue serge
suit, a rather cheap affair as well as I could judge at that distance,
and a black felt hat. Somehow I got the impression, though I was too far
away to say anything with certainty, that he was not so much sallow as
sunburnt. It was more than likely that he had not got a good look at
me - in that case he would not know me again, as I flattered myself that
there was nothing very distinctive about me. Still, as that marksman
behind the rocks must have been taking stock of me for some considerable
while, I realised that no definite advantage would accrue from the fact
that one of the gang might not be able to identify me. I had no means of
ascertaining how many there were in the organisation, and something
warned me not to display too much interest in Bryce's presence. When I
walked down the path and discovered him backing the car into his garage
I made no comment on the situation beyond telling him that the spy had
gone temporarily out of business and was at present taking a
constitutional down the street.

"All we can do then," Bryce said, "is to let him depart in peace and
trust that nothing happens. I wouldn't like any of that bunch to be cut
off in the midst of their sins. I've got another end mapped out for
them."

"If you figure me in on that, you're mighty mistaken," I said to myself.
"I'm the first line of defence, but I'll be hanged if I'm going to carry
the war into the enemy's country."

I needn't have been so cocksure about it, for as will shortly be related
that was just exactly what I did do.




CHAPTER III.

THE STRANGE BEHAVIOUR OF MR. BRYCE.


I made an excellent dinner. Bryce's kitchen and the meat-safes attached
proved on investigation to contain enough food for a family. First of
all I had a wash, and then when I felt a little more presentable, I dug
up a frying-pan, asked Bryce if he liked sausages and, being told that
he did, thanked Heaven that his tastes were similar to mine and set
about cooking them. Now I like my sausages fried nice and crisp, but I
have yet to find the lodging-house keeper this side of Gehenna who can
fry anything without burning it to a cinder. Though I don't wish to
crack up my own work, I'll say this for it - that, if I do like things
done any particular way, I can always be sure of pleasing myself if I do
the cooking.

I cooked with one eye on the gas-stove and the other on Bryce. I had
scarcely set to work before he wandered into the kitchen, found the
nail-brush or whatever it was that the cook used for cleaning the pots,
washed the black loam off the piece of wood which had so excited my
curiosity earlier in the day, and then commenced to scrub it. He used up
an inordinate amount of soap and quite a lot of elbow-grease, but when
he had finished the wood looked as if it had just been newly cut and
trimmed. What took my attention about it was that it was covered from
end to end with queer little marks or scratches. These seemed to
interest Bryce very much, for he pored over them like an antiquary who
has discovered a new kind of hieroglyphics. He got so interested in them
that he forgot my presence altogether. Once when I asked him some simple
question about the dinner he jumped as if he were shot, colored up and
then said, "Oh, I beg your pardon. What did you say?"

I repeated my question and he answered me as if his thoughts were miles
away. He was wide-awake enough when I walked over to the kitchen sink on
some errand or another to slip the wood into his pocket and face me with
a look in his eye that said as plainly as so many words, "You're not
going to steal a march on me, my lad. That's for my eyes alone." Only
once during the dinner-hour did he say anything that stuck in my memory.
On this occasion he turned to me and asked, "Can you use a typewriter?"

"Now, he's going to make a private secretary of me," I thought. "I won't
bite." So I looked him straight in the eye and unblushingly answered
that I couldn't use one if I tried and hoped he didn't want me to learn,
as I was sure I'd only make a mess of it. He seemed rather relieved at
that and later in the afternoon, when I heard the "tick-tack" of his
machine drifting out from the room in which he had locked himself, I
began to wonder just what he had been driving at.

He drifted out to the kitchen later on and asked me to light the fire
for him. I did so and he watched it blaze up, and as soon as he was sure
that it was well alight he drew that inevitable piece of wood from his
pocket, soaked it in kerosene and dropped it into the heart of the fire.
I'm hanged if he didn't sit there and watch it until it had burnt into a
charred heap of ashes. While he had been attending to it he had left a
sheet of typewritten paper down on the table and as he turned to get it
it fluttered to the floor. I was the nearer to it so I picked it up and
handed it to him. As I did so I caught a glimpse of the characters that
covered most of it. I got just the one look at them, but one line I
noticed ran somehow like this -

- 3¼½743 ½3:3; "335 "49 - [email protected] 3¼½534; 3; £

He looked at me queerly as he took the paper. "Have you ever done any
timber measurements?" he asked.

"None at all," I answered promptly, and this time I told the truth.

"You wouldn't understand this then," he ran on, indicating the paper,
though he was careful not to let me have another look at it.

"I saw some of it," I said off-handedly, as if it were no affair of
mine, "and it looked to me like the sort of thing a mathematician would
see if he ever got the willies."

"You have a most expressive way of putting things, Carstairs," he said
with a smile. There was more than humor in that smile; there was
something in it that looked remarkably like relief.

"I can't stand figures of any sort," I volunteered with a fervent hope
in my heart that I wasn't over-doing my part. "A sheet of them'd just
about give me the D.Ts."

He laughed out loud at that and then, expressing a hope that I would
make myself at home, he padded out of the room. It was astonishing how
quietly he could walk when he was moving about the house. For all his
gross bulk there was something furtive and cat-like about him that told
me just how insistent must be the menace of a sudden death. He moved so
silently that I never knew he was there until I looked up and saw him.
He glided from room to room like some obese ghost. At first it got on my
nerves, but pretty soon I settled down to it, and in a day or so got
quite used to seeing a silent bulk sliding noiselessly about the house,
appearing at all sorts of odd times in all sorts of queer places.

The cook returned about 5 o'clock and seemed rather inclined to take up
a high-handed attitude with me, until a few well-chosen words from her
master quietened her down a little. She was not slow to show me in other
ways that she regarded me as an intruder in the house, and if any one
thing about me was more preferable than another it was my room rather
than my company. Still as I kept out of her way as much as possible, and
as my sole duties consisted in keeping an eye on all strangers that
approached the place and in listening for any unaccountable sounds, I
came into conflict with her very seldom.

Matters progressed so quietly for the next couple of days that I began
to wonder whether I had not fallen into a sinecure after all. Bryce had
procured me a decent outfit so that I was now my own man again, ready to
argue the right-of-way with all comers. Added to that my feet were well
on the mend and my general health was keeping pretty near to the
top-notch mark, so I wasn't finding life such a bad thing after all.
Bryce worried me but little. At times I went odd messages for him, but
all my trips were so arranged that I was never away from the house more
than half an hour at a time. The more I thought over the mystery
surrounding him the deeper and more inexplicable it became. I knew of
whom he was afraid, but I had no more idea of the reason of his fear
than I had of the name of the man in the moon. My occupation was more
reminiscent of revolutionary South America than of a civilised country,
and the thought of it set me wondering whether Bryce had ever lived
amongst the volatile Latins on the other side of the Pacific. Come to
think of it the one man I had seen closely had been a dark type. It was
just barely possible that Bryce had somehow tangled himself in something
of the kind. But then that cipher business - I was fully convinced by now
that it was some original kind of cryptogram - rather pointed the other
way. One of the things I had noticed had been a £ sign, and anything
dealing with any of the Latin Republics would almost assuredly have been
written with a $ sign. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that I had
been barking up the wrong tree.

I jotted down the figures that I remembered, but I must have had some of
the signs down wrong, for, try as I would, I could make nothing out of
them. As a matter of fact the solution was so simple that in the end I
only stumbled on it by accident.

Bryce had a bad habit of locking himself in his room for hours at a
time, and it occurred to me that such a course wasn't in his own
interest any more than mine, so I tackled him about it at the first
opportunity.

"Here you are," I said, "paying me for being a mixture of Swiss Guard
and watch-dog, but for all the looking-after you get I might as well be
miles away. I don't want to be hanging on to your skirts every ten
minutes or so, but doesn't it strike you as a reasonable man that you're
inviting trouble by locking yourself in so securely?"

"I do that so I won't be disturbed," he urged.

"That's a reason that cuts both ways," I said. "Suppose somebody
happened to be in the room when you arrived. Don't you see that he could
do all he wanted to do without being disturbed either."

"But you'd hear any uncommon noise," Bryce objected.

"Maybe I would and then maybe I wouldn't. I'm not infallible, you know,
and anyway it's quite possible that any visitor you had wouldn't make a
row at all. And while I'm on it, wouldn't it be just as well to give me
a sketch of the plot? I'm working in the dark as it is, but, if I had
some idea of what's at the back of all this, I might be able to look
after you better."

"I'm afraid I can't do that," he said slowly, and for the first time
since we had met he eyed me with suspicion. There was doubt in his
glance, the sort of doubt that a man does not care to see in the eyes of
a friend. I saw that I had made a radical mistake in even hinting that I
wished to know his secret, and I hastened to make what amends I could.

"I'm sorry," I said, "if you look at it in that way. I was only doing it
for your own good. You're paying what's an enormous sum to me, and I'm
trying to justify your expenditure. If I know your enemies and all about
them, I can certainly plan level and, maybe, occasionally outguess them.
That's the only thing I had in mind when I spoke, and if I gave you any
other impression I'm sorry I said what I did."

He moved his shoulders in a kind of half-shrug. It was at once a gesture
of relief and of dismissal, so without more ado I said, "If there's
nothing further you want, I'll make off now. If you want me any time
I'll be pottering around the house somewhere."

"Well, there is something I'd like you to do, Jim," he said. "I want
half-a-dozen parish maps. Here's the list of them" - he handed me a piece
of paper with a few names scribbled on the back - "and here's the money.
Go down to the Lands Department and they'll fix you up. Mind that they
are large scale maps, the largest they've got. You'd better take the
car, and don't be any longer than you can help."

"It's a twenty minutes' run at the outside," I said. "I won't waste any
time."

He nodded quite cheerfully to me and went into his room. I heard the key
grate in the lock as I walked down the passage and I remember saying to
myself, "That habit's going to get him into trouble yet."

I reached the office in record time. They had some trouble in finding
the maps I wanted - most of them were of parishes situated around the
foot of the Grampians - but in the end they produced some that I fancied
would suit my man. My twenty minutes' limit had almost expired and, as
it is a matter of pride with me to be punctual, I let the car out a
little. That, I suppose, was my undoing, for just as I crossed over the
busiest street a motor-lorry swerved out and nearly collided with me. I
did some very neat wheel-work, but my new course took me right across to
the gutter, and before I had quite realised what had happened I had
speared my tyre with a jagged piece of glass. The tyre popped off with a
report like that of a small revolver, and the next second I was bumping
on the frame. I pulled up as quickly as I could, but the mischief was
done and the tyre was just one great rip from end to end. Luckily I
carried a spare wheel, but I am an unhandy man at the merely mechanical
part of the work, and I took twice as long over it as a professional
would have. By the time I was ready to start again my twenty minutes had
lengthened into an hour, and somehow the knowledge of that worried me.

I packed my tools anyhow, hopped back into the car and threw over my
clutch. The car started with a little jerk that I didn't quite relish,
and on looking over the side I saw that the new wheel was wobbling, not
very much indeed, but just enough to show me that I had bungled my work.
I immediately cut down my speed and proceeded for the rest of the
journey at something closely approaching a snail's pace.

"Now," I said to myself, "if this was in a novel I'd say that the lorry
cut across my path deliberately. But as this is in real life and the
lorry belongs to a firm of respectable grocers it can't be anything else
but just my own darned bad luck."

I dismissed the incident at that and turned my attention to my driving.
I had no intention of mixing myself up in another such accident if I
could possibly avoid it, and now that I had definitely taken service
with Bryce I felt I owed it to him to exercise all reasonable care.
After my first few spasmodic attempts at resistance I had succumbed
rather quickly to his enticing offer. After all, I thought, I wouldn't
be putting myself in any greater danger than I had been in for the past
four years. I had faced sudden death in many shapes and forms during my
sojourn in the strange wild lands about the Line, so much so that, once
I had taken into account the money Bryce was giving me, the present
adventure rather degenerated into a pleasant little game of
hide-and-seek.

I was still turning this over in that portion of my mind which wasn't
occupied with the sheerly mechanical side of my work when I reached the
house. More from force of habit than from any other cause I cast my eyes
along the road, much as if it had been a forest trail that held secrets
only a woodsman could read. Plainly marked in the dust of the roadway
were the tracks of a vehicle that I instinctively knew to be a cab. It
had veered right in towards the kerb, and a moment's study convinced me
that it had stopped at Bryce's house. Now that meant that somebody had
arrived during my absence, and, as Bryce had said nothing to me about
expecting a visitor, I decided that the sooner I entered the house and
investigated the better for the safety of all concerned. I drove the car
into the garage in record time and darted into the house as if the devil
were at my heels. There wasn't a sound to be heard; even the eternal
clatter of the typewriter had ceased. With a caution born of experience


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Online LibraryJ. M. (James Morgan) WalshThe lost valley → online text (page 2 of 16)