J. M. (James Morgan) Walsh.

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I tip-toed up the passage, all my senses instinctively on the alert. The
door of Bryce's room was still locked and everything, to all outward
seeming, was just as I had left it. I don't know what I had expected to
find in the passage, but the very apparent quietness of the place
sobered me considerably, and I realised abruptly on what a slender
foundation I had based my fears. If anything had happened during my
absence it was almost certain that I would have found some trace of it
in the hall, a rug disarranged, or a mat kicked away from the door. All
the odds were on Bryce working quietly behind the locked door. Yet of
all the foolish things in the world for me to think of the idea that
entered my mind just then was that something that concerned me very
intimately was being worked out in the room across the passage.

I made one step forward and then I stopped abruptly. Some one else than
Bryce was in the room. Out of the silence came a voice, a woman's voice.
It was smooth and well-modulated, and there was the faintest touch of
music in it. In some curious way it touched a stray chord in my memory.
I knew at once that I had heard it before, but how or where I could no
more say than I could fly. Perhaps that was because its full notes were
muffled by the door that intervened.

"I'd do anything," the woman said in the quietest tones imaginable,
"anything but that. You don't understand. If you knew all the
circumstances, if you knew just how and why we parted you wouldn't ask
me. I'm sorry for it all now, more sorry than you could believe, but you
can't expect me to take up things just where they left off - as if
nothing had happened."

"Bryce's got a little romance tucked away up his sleeve," I thought.
"This sort of complicates matters. Wonder who the lady is?"

"My dear girl," came the reply in Bryce's tones, softer and more
persuasive than I had ever heard them, "I know more perhaps than you
think. I'm doing this out of the fullness of my knowledge in the hope
that when I'm gone...."

"Don't!" the woman interrupted sharply. "Don't talk like that!"

"It's one of the things we've got to face," Bryce said gently. "I won't
live for ever anyway, and you know as well as I do just what chance I
run of having a period put to me ... any time now." The last three words
were spoken very slowly and distinctly, as if Bryce wished them to sink
into the mind of his companion. "You're the only person in the world
that I care a hang about," he continued with a note of indescribable
pathos in his voice, "and I'm doing all this for you ... and him."

"But I tell you," the girl said with a little flash of anger, "I tell
you I won't have anything to do with him. If you bring him to the house
I'll cut him dead."

"And put yourself doubly in the wrong and make it all the harder for
everybody," Bryce told her.

There was a dogged note in the girl's voice as she replied. "I know I
was wrong, but I just can't do what you want. I can't say more than
that."

"I'm sorry you look at things that way," Bryce said. "I had hoped...." I
did not catch the nature of his hope, for his voice dropped an octave or
so and his sentence ended in whispers.

"Jimmy Carstairs," I said to myself, "you've been eavesdropping and you
know it. You mustn't be caught doing those kind of things. Get out of
the way as fast as you can," and at that I twisted round on my heel and
went back down the hall. I hadn't any desire to be caught listening to
conversations that were obviously not intended for me and that anyway
weren't of the least interest. So you can be sure that when I did return
up the hall I walked fairly heavily and coughed discreetly as soon as I
was within hearing distance of Bryce's room.

The key turned in the lock of a sudden and the door was flung wide open.
The girl stood in her own light so that the shadows masked her face, but
the sun fell full on mine and my features must have been clearly visible
to her.

"You!" she said, with a little catch in her voice.

"Shut the door, please," I said, in the most matter-of-fact tones I
could muster. "Shut the door and come out here."

I knew her now. God! Could I ever forget her? In a flash my mind flew
back through four years - or was it five? - to that evening when she had
caused my little world to rock and tremble, and then to fall in pieces
at my feet. I had loved her then - I thought I loved her more than
anything or anyone in this world - but a dying father's wish had come
between us. The poor old Dad had made a life study of the Islands - how
monumental a study it was let his three volumes of Solomon Island
Ethnology bear witness - yet he died before he had quite completed his
notes. Though he had said nothing to me I knew the wish that lay nearest
his heart, and I made his dying hour almost the happiest of his life by
promising to carry on his work.

I remember the night I came out to tell her. The sky was streaked with
dead gold and cerise and warm-tinted clouds trailed across the heavens
like the ends of a scarf streaming from the neck of a hurrying woman.
All the world was gay that evening and I whistled as I went. She was
waiting at the gate as always she had waited for me. She greeted me with
a smile and some bright little remark that I forgot practically the
instant it was uttered.

"I want to talk to you," I said; "I want to talk seriously."

She smiled up at me, a trusting little smile as I thought. She had no
idea what was coming, but she always gave me my head in the things that
do not matter much.

"What is it, Jim?" she asked.

"It's this," I said, and then I told what I had promised.

"But that," she protested, "means burying yourself in New Guinea and the
Solomons for four whole years."

"It does," I said. "There is no other way."

I had not been looking at her face - there had been no need, for I was
quite convinced that she would see things in a proper light - but now I
turned on her. To my surprise there was just the least little touch of
annoyance in her face.

"You don't quite relish the idea," I said.

"It's a very foolish idea," she said quite frankly. "I don't know what
you could have been thinking of."

"I was thinking of my father," I told her. "I was making his last hour
happy, and he died in the knowledge that I would carry his work on to
the conclusion he had planned."

"Are you going to see it through?" The abruptness of the question took
me aback.

"Of course," I said. "What else could I do?"

"Four years!" she said. "What is to become of me?"

"The time will soon go by," I answered, "and then I'll come back to you
and everything will be right."

"You seem to think of everyone but me," she said hotly. "You promised so
that your father would die easy, and that's the end of it. If you are
going to be bound by such a thing as that you're nothing more than an
impractical idealist."

"I passed my word and a Carstairs never breaks a promise."

"You mean that, Jim? You mean that you are going away to ... carry out
that absurd promise?"

"It's not absurd," I declared.

"I think it is," she said wilfully. "If you go, you need never come
back."

"I am going," I said steadily. "As an honorable man there is no other
course open to me. I'm sorry that you look at it this way, but I can't
do anything else."

"At last I know how much you think of me," she said with that little
touch of anger with which a woman always defends the indefensible. "You
never did care for me."

"I do, I do," I protested. "Can't you see it?"

"I can't see anything," she said stubbornly, "except that you'd do this
rather than listen to me. It shows all you think of me. Oh, I hate you!
I never, never want to see you again!"

"Is that your last word?" I demanded.

"Absolutely my last," she answered firmly.

"Well," I said, "here's my last too. I'm going to carry out my promise,
and if a man had spoken to me about it as you have spoken to me to-night
I would have pulped his face."

"I really believe you would," she said exasperatingly. "You see, Jim,
you were always something of a savage. That, I suppose, is why you are
so anxious to go to the Islands ... where the savages are."

That was the very last word she had said to me, for the next moment the
gate was banged behind her and shut me out of her life. I was hurt,
badly hurt in my self-esteem, but my rising anger, burning hot within
me, kept me from feeling as bad as I might have felt. In two months'
time I landed at Tulagi on Florida Island, and for the next four years
or so the civilised world knew me not. I reached finality, but I spent
my fortune and came back to Australia to all intents and purposes a
pauper. Four years...! Here she was facing me at last - just as if
nothing had ever come between us.

"Yes, it's me," I said ungrammatically. "Why?"

She raised her hand to her throat with a queer little gesture. "I didn't
quite expect to see you ... yet," she said.

"It's the unexpected that happens," I remarked. "I've come back at last,
though in slightly different circumstances."

"I know, Jim. I've heard."

"He told you," I suggested, and nodded towards the door she had just
closed.

"How do you know that?" she asked quickly.

"It is my business to know things," I told her. "I'm a professional
caretaker of secrets now."

She looked at me blankly and I saw that he had not told her everything.
It behoved me to play the game warily until I was sure of my ground.

"What are you doing here, Moira?" I asked her point-blank.

"That's a question I could ask you," she countered. "But I am here, not
from any desire to meet you - I didn't know you were here - but because he
sent for me."

"And why should he send for you?" I persisted.

There was just the faintest flicker of a smile moving about her lips
now; she had turned a little and the light was playing on her face.

"For just the simplest reason in the world. He wanted me."

"Why should he want you?" I demanded.

She looked at me a moment as if astonished that I should ask such a
question. But there was that in my eyes which told her that my ignorance
was anything but assumed.

"You really mean to say you don't know?" she asked incredulously.

"If I did know I wouldn't question you about it," I said shortly. "What
is the reason?"

"Well, you see," she answered lightly, with just a slight uplift of her
eyebrows - an old theatrical trick that I used to admire in the days gone
by - "he happens to be my uncle."

"That puts another complexion on matters," I said half to myself. But
her quick ear caught the drift of my remark and she was down on me like
the wolf on the fold.

"You're in with him, are you?" she questioned, with that devouring flame
I knew so well flaring up in her golden-brown eyes. "You're in with
him ... in this?"

In a way I wasn't. As a matter-of-fact I suspected from her last words
that she knew more about everything than I did, but I was perfectly sure
that she wouldn't believe me if I denied it, so I said instead, "Yes, I
am."

"I might have known it," she said with a little shake of her head. I
didn't quite follow her logic, but I judged it best to let it pass. One
would think from the way she spoke that there was something
reprehensible in being mixed up in anything conducted by her venerable
relative. I wondered why.

"Yes, you might have known it," I said, falling in with her own humor.
"I have a habit of doing things I shouldn't."

I knew she understood my veiled allusion, for I saw her bite her lip and
again the lambent flame leaped up in her eyes. But it died as suddenly
as it had come, and in another instant the old tantalising smile was
playing about the corners of her mouth. In the smoky interminable depths
of the Solomon Island jungle I had crushed that smile out of my life,
for ever I had thought. I had deliberately erased it from my memory, and
at night beside the smudge fire, when my eyes closed for an instant and
that beautiful imperious face peeped at me from out of the mazes of
recollection, I would open my eyes and stared fixedly at the misshapen
headhunters who were my sole companions in that wilderness. "These," I
would say, "are the kindred of us both. Their women smile as she smiles,
and the men respond to it as I used to respond." And with that thought
in my head I would fall asleep and not dream.

"Jim," she said with abrupt irrelevance, "you've changed. You usen't to
be like that before. You're different somehow ... cynical, I think."

"That's more than likely," I agreed. "I'm learning to hit back. And now
if you'll excuse me," I ran on before she had time to answer, "I'll just
drop in with this parcel."

Then without more ado I turned on my heel and knocked at Bryce's door.




CHAPTER IV.

THE THIEF IN THE NIGHT.


"I've got those maps you wanted," I remarked as Bryce opened the door,
"and I hope I haven't kept you waiting too long."

"You haven't," he said with a smile. "As a matter-of-fact I've been
otherwise occupied. I've had a visitor."

"A visitor?" I said guardedly, though what on earth there was to guard
against was more than I could have said just then. Some cross-grained
streak in my nature made me both cantankerous and suspicious, and while
the mood was on me I would have contradicted or queried the word of an
archangel.

"Yes," Bryce replied. "The lady you met in the passage. I gather that
she knows you."

"We knew each other years ago," I said shortly. In a flash the meaning
of the conversation I had overheard burst on me. I began to perceive
that her presence in the house was due in part at least to me. Well, if
he fancied he was going to patch up our old love affair he had
undertaken a bigger job than he thought. For two pins I would have told
him, had he uttered another word, that there was one matter in which I
would brook no man's interference, and that even the ties that bound him
to my father were not strong enough to allow him to settle what was
nobody's affair but mine. But, with even greater tact than I believed he
possessed, he switched the conversation on to quite another subject and
talked to me for the better part of half-an-hour about the maps I had
brought.

He had the formation of the country and its industries at his fingers'
ends, and he spoke like a man who had gained his information at
first-hand. I listened attentively, for I guessed in some queer fashion
of my own that the maps and that foolish cryptogram, the shooting on the
beach and the piece of driftwood were all somehow connected. But either
I must have missed some very obvious point or else he picked his words
so carefully that he misled me.

I used my eyes for all they were worth, which wasn't much. The
typewriter stood on the table in its old position, and the table itself
was littered with sheets of typed figures. "More timber measurements," I
said to myself. Somehow the sight of those sheets troubled me. They were
innocent-looking enough in all conscience, and I couldn't for the life
of me understand why they should have this peculiar effect on me. I felt
as if a cold gust of wind, the icy breath of Death himself, had passed
and touched me in the passing. I flatter myself that I have pretty
strong nerves - the Lord knows they've been tested often enough - but
there was something in the atmosphere of that room, something in the
sight of those littered sheets of paper, that sent a cold shiver through
me, that made me want to rush from the place into the golden sunshine
out of doors. It was a presentiment, but one that could not be
localised. It did not appear to be one that could be shared either, for
Bryce still talked on in his own quaint way, apparently unaffected by
the strange influence which so troubled me.

At last he rose and proceeded to gather up the disordered papers on the
table. I rose too, and with a careless "So long," was making for the
door when he stopped me with a question.

"I suppose," he asked, "that you haven't seen anything lately of our
inquisitive friends?"

"The Roman sentry and the gentleman with the hardware and the smashed
wrist?" I answered his question with one of mine.

He smiled at my description and the laughter-lines about his mouth
creased into a myriad wrinkles. "You have them exactly," he remarked.

"No, I haven't seen them," I said. "They seem to have disappeared into
nothingness."

Curiously enough the news, instead of pleasing, seemed to disappoint
him. "They evidently mean business," he said in a semi-undertone. It
seemed almost as if he was speaking his thoughts out aloud.

He glanced up at me with brooding eyes and brows drawn close together.
"We'll hear from them presently," he murmured, "and then the end won't
be far away."

"Cheer up," I said hastily, "They've got a long way to go yet, and I
don't think they'll find me altogether pleasant to deal with."

"If you knew all about it," he said, and then he hesitated. For just the
fraction of a second he trembled on the point of divulging everything,
and then his old cautiousness re-asserted itself and the impulse died
away.

"That'll be all," he said briskly. "Just keep your eyes and your ears
open, Jim, and, as you say, we'll beat them yet."

But I rather fancied from his tone that he meant that last sentence the
other way about.

* * * * *

I came awake instantly. The noise that had awakened me still echoed in
my ears and, though I could not put a name to it, I could have sworn
that it came from the room where Bryce did his typing. It was a very
faint noise, not the kind to bring a heavy sleeper instantly awake. But
my nerves work like a hair-trigger, and the almost noiseless pad of a
cat across the room at night is sufficient to rouse me. What I had heard
had been so faint that a less matter-of-fact man might have imagined
that he had dreamt it. But I knew better. I don't dream.

The obvious thing was to slip out of bed at once and investigate. I
didn't. I knew a trick worth two of that. I sat up and listened. It
might be a wandering tabby that had blundered into a piece of furniture;
perhaps the window had creaked; it might be any one of half a hundred
things. If there was an intruder in the house I felt certain that
presently I would hear something more. No man, no matter how careful he
be, can move with a complete absence of sound.

Five minutes passed, ten, a quarter of an hour. Nothing happened. And
then, just as I was beginning to despair, I heard it again. It was a
little plainer this time. Somebody had scraped a chair across the floor
and it had creaked slightly.

That was more than enough for me. I slipped out of bed, but I did not
hurry. Many a man with the prize almost within his grasp has lost it
simply because he has rushed at it with his eyes shut. I didn't dawdle,
but I said to myself, "The more haste the less speed, Jim," and
accordingly I took my time. Of course if I had fancied that there was
one chance in a hundred of the man getting away, I would have been on
the spot like a shot, but I guessed from what I had heard that the
visitor was in no hurry, and certainly hadn't the faintest suspicion
that anyone in the house was aware of his presence. I got my clothes on
somehow and took a grip of my long Colt by the barrel end. I didn't want
to shoot unless there was no other way out of it, and anyway a
revolver-shot kicks up such an infernal racket inside a house and brings
on the scene quite a number of people who'd be better at home and in
bed.

I slunk down the passage like a shadow, walking as if I were treading on
eggs. Very softly I tried the door. To my disgust it was locked. Now the
only time Bryce ever locked it was when he was at work inside, so I knew
that my man was still within reach. As if to make assurance doubly sure
I caught, as I stepped back, the faint gleam of a pencil of light from
under the doorway.

The position as I summed it up was this: - The intruder had entered
through the door and had quietly locked it behind him. That would have
been the first noise I had heard. Then he had hunted about for whatever
he wanted and, once it had been found, he had drawn the chair up to the
table and settled down to a prolonged study of the matter. That would
explain the two sounds. Now as my man had come in through the door he
was almost certain to go out the same way and, in the interests of peace
and quiet, the proper course to take was to sit down and wait until he
decided to come out.

I can't say how long I waited there. It seemed like hours, but of course
at the outside it could not have been many minutes. I would dearly have
liked to smoke, but I rather fancied that the other man's nose would be
sure to scent me out. Also a scrape of a match in a still house at the
dead of night sounds like a bomb-explosion. So I just squatted down on
my heels and cursed my man under my breath. I was in deadly fear most of
the time that he would make a noise of some kind and bring the other
inhabitants down about my ears. He was my meat, and I meant to eat him
myself.

At length the pencil of light went out. Somebody moved stealthily across
the room and the key turned softly in the lock. I balanced the gun in my
hand and got ready to swing. It was pitch-dark in the hall and I could
not see an inch in front of me, but I had my fingers right up against
the jamb of the door and I could feel it opening. The man was breathing
with a barely perceptible wheeze and, if I had not been listening for
something of the kind, I might have missed it altogether. But it was
quite loud enough for me to position the fellow, and the next instant I
flopped out of the darkness on to him. He gave a surprised little gasp,
a sort of sizzling like the air escaping out of a punctured tyre, and
went down on the mat underneath me. I had taken him so completely off
his guard that there was no need for me to use my gun. I got one hand on
his throat in the most approved style of the garrotte and just pressed.
He wriggled a little at first, but I kept up the same even pressure, and
presently he went limp. I knew then that he was harmless for the next
ten minutes, so I released my hold, slipped my useless Colt into my
pocket, and made to stand up. But at that precise moment the electric
light in the hall went on, and a silvery voice said, "Hands up, please!"

In the astonishment of the moment I shot my hands heavenwards and turned
round to view the new arrival. It was just as I thought. Moira had
blundered into my little surprise party, and she was doing her level
best to annex all the honors for herself. She was standing with one hand
on the light switch and the other held Bryce's automatic. Her face was
very pale, and the hand that held the revolver wasn't quite as steady as
I could have wished. She blinked a little at me - her eyes seemed blinded
by the sudden radiance - and I don't think she recognised me for the
moment, so much do one's ordinary clothes make the man.

It was clearly up to me to disillusion her and persuade her either to
put down the revolver or hold it in a way less calculated to alarm the
peaceful public.

"You'd better put down that infernal thing, Moira," I said calmly, "or
you'll be doing someone damage. The mere sight of you makes me nervous,
Diana."

There was a studied insult in the last word, but I think somehow she
must have missed it in the excitement of the moment, for she lowered her
gun and ran towards me.

"Oh, it's you!" she cried surprisedly.

"It's me," I said dourly, and I dropped my hands into a more convenient
position. "In fact it's so much me that I'd be obliged if you'd keep
quiet for a while and help me look after this gentleman on the floor. I
want to examine him, and I don't think I'll be able to do it in comfort
if you wake the rest of the family."

"Who is he?" she asked, showing by the subdued note of her voice that
she had taken my warning to heart.

"That's more than I can say," I answered. "I discovered him in the room
there, and when he came out I promptly sat on him."

"But what did he want?"

"If one can judge anything from his present attitude, he came to study
the pattern of the carpet, Moira."

"Be serious, Jim, please."

"I couldn't if I tried," I said, rising to my feet. "It's too much like
hard work. But let's look at the captive, Diana."

This time the shot went home, and in a way I was glad. I had four years'
arrears to make up yet. It was not a very manly thing to do, I know - it
certainly wasn't at all gentlemanly - but it gave me a deuce of a lot of
satisfaction, and that's about all I can say in defence. She looked up


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Online LibraryJ. M. (James Morgan) WalshThe lost valley → online text (page 3 of 16)