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The Land of The Lost

Chapter XXVIII

page 264

Chapter XXVIII

Their first act the following morning was to endeavour to discover Bart. With this object they ascended the hill behind the cabin, and skirting the ridge for a distance of half a mile, dived into a deep gully, at the upper end of which Bart's whare was erected. The hut was constructed of rushes with a low sliding door of wood. Around it a small piece of land was inclosed in a stake fence, and in the centre of this was a red rose bush in full flower. Surmounting the fence by the aid of a log roughly hewn into steps, Bart's visitors slid back the door and entered the cabin. The place was empty, and had evidently not been slept in the previous night. The blankets were folded, as is usual, to prevent them being blown by the bluebottle fly, but everything else was in a state of more or less disorder.

Jess looked round and shook his head. "His spade is here," he said, "so he cannot be on the field. The dead-house has got him, after all."

Over the bed was a single shelf, containing ten or a dozen volumes, several of which were elaborately bound in leather. Hugh removed one from its resting-place and discovered opposite the fly-leaf the bookplate of a famous English college, and an inscription to the effect that the volume was presented to Charles Horace Medway for "English Literature." Most of the page 265others were somewhat similarly inscribed, and Hugh finally turned away from the shelf with a feeling of commiseration for their absent owner.

"Poor Bart!" said Jess, who had observed Hugh's occupation. "He has parted with everything else. Even in the maddest of his debauches, when to obtain liquor he would sell a month's labour ahead of him, he kept those."

"Let us find him," said Hugh suddenly, with a frown. "The inn will be the best place to look for him."

They went out into the inclosure, where Hugh's gaze was again arrested by the rose bush. He noticed that the soil around it was kept loosened and free from weeds and the plant wore a lusty and well cared for appearance.

"Don't, boy," said Jess, as Hugh put out his hand to secure a bud. "Bart would resent it."

"Why so?"

"Who knows?" Jess replied vaguely.

They made their way out of the gully, and striking a track through the scrub, soon reached the road. The country here was black and unsightly from the recent fire. At various points arose thin columns of smoke, and away on the horizon dense clouds marked where the bush was still burning. Of the tent nothing remained but the charred poles, and of its original contents only the metal portions of the tools and implements were left unconsumed. Hugh kicked over the articles on the ground, disclosing a few books with their backs and edges burnt away.

"There was nothing here of any value," he remarked, "and but that these men thought to do me an injury, I might feel relieved that I am saved the trouble of dealing with my belongings."

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They returned to the road and made their way along it to the inn.

In the bar they found Upmore, busy transferring the dregs of the bottles to a quart measure. He looked leaner and greyer than usual, possibly from the effects of a night of wakefulness, and Hugh noticed that the bottle he was emptying rattled against the lip of the measure.

"We have come for Bart," he said at once. "Where is he?"

"I'm sure I couldn't tell you," said Upmore indifferently, setting down the empty bottle. "I haven't seen him since you left."

"I'll take a look through the dead-house," Hugh said without ceremony.

"Will you?" the innkeeper replied nastily. "Not without my permission, I suppose?"

"Have you the key on you?" Hugh inquired.

"I might," said the innkeeper, "or I might not."

"Better look," Hugh suggested. "I should be sorry to put you to the expense of a new lock."

Upmore showed his teeth slightly. "That would be a bit of hard luck," he thought.

Hugh turned resolutely towards the passage.

"Stay a moment," said Upmore quickly. "You can satisfy yourself that he is not inside. If you had made the request civilly in the first place, there would have been no trouble."

"Very well," said Hugh, diminishing nothing of his curtness of manner.

The innkeeper led the way along the dark passage and pointed to the open doorway. There was a strong smell of soapsuds and damp wood mingling with the usual odour of rats. The place had evidently been only recently scrubbed.

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"We had to swab it out," Upmore explained; "it was in a filthy condition."

"Is there no one in the new building?" Hugh asked as they returned to the bar.

Upmore shrugged his shoulders. "Search the whole house, if you like," he said. "I have already told you he is not here."

Nothing mollified, Hugh began a search of the building, and he did not desist until every room down to the kitchen had been explored.

"Well," asked Upmore, bending his dark eyes upon them as they re-entered the bar on the conclusion of the search, "are you satisfied now?"

"He is not here," Hugh replied.

"Just so," said Upmore. "Take another look round, if you like," he added obligingly.

Outside on the road the two men came to a standstill.

"You know more of his habits than I do, Jess," Hugh said. "Can you form an idea of what has become of him?"

Jess Olive shook his head. "He may have lain down and gone to sleep somewhere along the road," he said. "We can do nothing but await his return."

Looking across the blackened landscape, a thought struck both men simultaneously, and they turned to one another with an equal gravity in their eyes.

"Let us look," Hugh suggested. "In any case he would not have wandered far from the road."

They spent an hour tramping over the crackling ground, blackening themselves against the charred stems, but what they dreaded to find remained undiscovered. Now and again they stumbled against a digger, his face, hands, and clothing sooted like those of page 268a sweep, but none of them had seen anything of Bart or had come across any sign of him in their wanderings.

Their search at length brought them again into the neighbourhood of Clifford's camping-ground, and happening to cast his eyes towards the road, Hugh observed a horseman, holding a spare horse, pulled up by the roadside and gazing blankly around him.

The rider was Wilfrid.

"So this is the end of it," he said, indicating the spot where the tent had been as Hugh hurried up.

"Yes," replied Hugh, "it's a case of clean sweep."

"Not so very clean," remarked Wilfrid, looking at a black smudge on Hugh's nose.

"How is she?" the latter asked.

"Well," replied Wilfrid, producing a letter from the breast of his coat, which Hugh received and regarded with a beating heart.

It was the first missive he had received from his sweetheart; the first time, indeed, that he had seen her writing, but he had no difficulty in identifying the writer on that account. No wonder he stood looking at the note as though it were too precious to be opened and read!

"There is something inside as well as out," Wilfrid remarked drily, and the young man blushed and broke the seal.

The contents were brief but charming: "My dear Hugh" (Her dear! Was it conceivable?), "father wants you to come back and—so do I.—Your Esther." His Esther! His! His! And then that exquisite "so do I," so sweetly simple, so full of divine promise! He read the note through several times, and but for shame he could have spent the day in its perusal. When he raised his eyes the tawdry landscape was bathed in the page 269golden haze of paradise. God was good. The world was beautiful.

"I have brought a horse for you," he heard Wilfrid saying, and he cast a grateful eye on the animal that was to transport him into the heaven where his lady dwelt.

"Will you come right away, or is there anything you have to do?"

The necessity for answering the question brought Hugh back to the world, and he turned doubtfully to Jess, who had just come up. Something vaguely unhappy in the latter's eyes touched and sobered him, and he looked at Wilfrid.

"Wilf," he said, "Bart is missing, and Jess is anxious about him. Let us see if we can find him before we go."

Wilfrid looked with speculative interest at Jess, and dismounted from his horse. "Is there any reason to suppose something serious has happened to him?" he asked, when he had been put in possession of the facts.

"No," Hugh replied hesitatingly. "Only that he apparently left the inn, and has neither gone home nor been heard of since."

"What time did the fire start?"

Hugh gave the required information, and after further discussion Jess set out to search the scrub on the unburned side of the road, while the mounted men rode over the blackened waste, scanning the field in all directions. It was past midday before the three met again at Olive's cabin to report progress. Meanwhile over twenty diggers had been encountered and questioned without eliciting any information. Most of them had been present at the social and had a more or less hazy notion of the last time they had seen the missing man; but none of them were able to speak of him later page 270than when he accompanied the crowd to the door of the dead-house, and stood with the others outside in the passage. The rumour, however, that Bart was missing and was supposed to have been caught in the fire spread rapidly across the field, and before night fell there were numerous searchers, especially on the track of the conflagration, where something gruesome might possibly be discoverable.

During the afternoon Hugh, on the understanding that Wilfrid would not communicate them to Esther, related the events of the previous night, including the attack on the cabin, and so interested did Wilfrid become, especially in connection with the mysterious warning received from Bart, that he decided, and persuaded Hugh, to pass the night on the field, in order that the search might, if necessary, be resumed the following morning.

"You owe it to him in return for the warning he gave you," Wilfrid had said. "Who knows but for that you might have taken no precautions?"

"I was thinking of Esther," Hugh replied.

"We will send her a note. Esther is an intelligent girl, and she knows better than you can tell her that you would sooner be with her than out here. She will love and respect you all the more that you sacrifice your inclinations in the cause of one who may have made a much more momentous sacrifice for you."

"What makes you think so?"

"I don't think so. I say it is possible. There are two things clear to me, and there is an unpleasant significance about both of them."

"What are they?" Hugh asked.

"He was close to you when Roller was thrown into the dead-house and he was never seen by the crowd page 271again. I argue from that that he was either forced in or he went in of his own accord."

"That would account for the sudden way in which he dropped out of sight last night," Hugh admitted.

"What is the second thing?"

"Just a little remark you let drop as to the condition of the dead-house this morning."

Hugh turned suddenly and looked full at his companion, then he rose from the chopping-block outside Olive's cabin, where he had been sitting, and paced restlessly up and down.

"I wonder," he said, "if they would send us a good man from Auckland, if I were to ride into the Bay and wire to the inspector?"

"Wait a day or two," Wilfrid suggested. "He could not leave Auckland anyway before Monday, and that gives three clear days. After all there may be a quite simple interpretation of the business."

The sun was setting. Jess, who had returned for the sixth time from the gully over the ridge, moved busily in and out the cabin, preparing the evening meal. Occasionally he came to a standstill and peered anxiously out through the waning daylight. All day long he had complained at intervals of the darkness, and it was evident that recent events had had an unhappy effect upon his disordered mind. The two men had ceased to discuss possibilities with him, and none but cheerful topics were alluded to in his presence.

After the meal was over Hugh and Wilfrid took their seats outside. A native, on his way to the settlement, had been intercepted, and by him Hugh had sent a message to Esther. Before the twilight failed Jess came out of the cabin and looked wildly around.

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"Did you hear?" he asked in a whisper, his blue eyes shining with an unearthly light. "They are killing a child. I heard it scream once, and then it moaned—moaned."

"Lie down and get some sleep, Jess," Hugh entreated.

"Sleep!" said Jess, in tones of awe. "With that sound in my ears and the trees falling all night long! God gave us sleep that we might never know the darkness, but the voices of the night steal through and tell us what God sought to conceal." But he turned back into the cabin.

"Is he often like this?" Wilfrid asked thoughtfully.

"I have never known him so disordered. Bart used to say that Jess lived in the front room, and that behind it lay the chamber of horrors."

"Figuratively that is a correct and striking image. Sometimes the curtain of separation trembles and thins, and darkness floods the whole house. But who knows what the figure really represents?"

Throughout the day the atmosphere of the field had been dimmed with smoke, and away to the south-east a bank of brown cloud lay all day long on the hillocks. Now, as darkness gathered, that portion of the sky grew slowly roseate, and tongues of bright flame flickered momentarily in the heart of it. The fire, steadily advancing across the inflammable scrub-lands, had reached the standing bush, and the fate of twenty miles of magnificent forest was sealed.

The stars came out dimly and close at hand through the hazy air as the two men sat smoking and talking. Occasionally a cricket shrilled out to his mates, who answered at various points down the slope, but there was no other sound.

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"Tell me the truth, Hugh," said Wilfrid. "Do you think that man last night was Roller?"

"No, I do not."

"Then who was he? Let us make an attempt to get to the bottom of this."

"Do you remember my telling you of a man with a spade? The same man who subsequently invaded my tent when Esther was there? Well, I have a fancy that he and my visitor of last night are the same."

"What is it that has made him attack you time and time again? It can be no common cause that inspires a man to make continual and murderous assaults on another."

"I have not the least idea in the world."

"Maybe he is merely the instrument of someone else. The whole thing is an inexplicable mystery. For what are the usual causes of attempted murder? Let us thrash the thing out. First, there is hatred, but that, unless we are dealing with a maniac, necessitates a motive, and apparently you have given no man any. Then there is jealousy, but at the time the first attack was made upon you love had not entered into your experience of life, therefore we must dismiss that also. Thirdly—and lastly, as far as I can see—there is greed, the desire to possess something which your continued existence debars someone from obtaining. Can that be made to explain the facts? Hardly. You stand in no man's light unless it be your brother's."

Wilfrid paused suddenly, and there was a long interval of silence.

"Is this an educated man?" he asked at length broodingly.

"Very much the other way" Hugh replied. "He is even exceptionally illiterate!"

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"There must be a motive and a strong one. His motive is probably money, but since he can obtain nothing directly, there must be someone behind, whose instrument he is. Who is that someone?"

He rose, and dropping the butt of his cigar, stamped it out with his heel.

"That someone," he said, "is your uncle. Mind you, it is a long and wild shot, but just possibly it may have hit the mark."