The Land of The Lost
The theory Wilfrid had formed led him early the following morning to the hotel, intent on testing its worth by the first means that occurred. Hugh, Jess, and half a dozen others, including the Earl of Baringbroke, who, with characteristic good nature, had returned from the Bay on hearing of Bart's disappearance, had meanwhile resumed the search with an energy and thoroughness that seemed to promise success.
Wilfrid pulled up in front of the verandah, his eye scanning the building with an interest it had never hitherto possessed for him. The innkeeper's name in white letters over the door drew more than a passing glance, and he was still thinking of it when he entered the bar.
He found two persons present in addition to Upmore. One was a freckled man with red skin and hair so light in colour as to appear almost white; the other was a big, ungainly fellow with a long neck surmounted by a small head. They were both more or less grimed from working in the track of the fire, and the face of the bigger man was swollen and discoloured as though from some severe pugilistic encounter. They gazed doubtfully and even suspiciously at Wilfrid as he entered, and the conversation he had heard in full swing while outside came to an abrupt cessation.page 276
"Good day, gentlemen," said Wilfrid, looking smilingly round the group."A charming day."
The freckled man spat viciously on the floor, and was understood to make some reference to the weather of a depreciatory character.
Wilfrid, with unabated good humour, turned to Upmore, still keeping the corner of an eye on the men on the seat.
"I have looked in," he said easily, "in connection with the disappearance of this man they call 'Bart.'"
"What about him?" Upmore asked.
"It is feared he may have been caught in the fire some time during the night before last, and it is proposed to make an exhaustive search of the field."
"Well, you'll find the field outside," said the innkeeper, indicating the doorway.
"Blow me," said the big man, chuckling, "if that ain't a good un."
"In order that the search may be pursued with additional energy," Wilfrid continued, fixing a smiling gaze on the last speaker, "I am commissioned by his lordship the Earl of Baringbroke to offer a reward of a hundred pounds for such information as may lead to the discovery of the missing man or of his body."
There was a silence that appeared to be filled in with reflection. Wilfrid noticed a momentary gleam of cunning in the eyes of the freckled man, and he made a mental note of it for future use. Then he turned to Upmore.
"I have a notice here to the effect I have stated, which it is proposed, with your permission, to fasten up in a conspicuous position on the verandah."
"Don't trouble to ask my permission," Upmore replied. "Placard the house all round if you feel the page 277least inclination to do so. I am merely here, it seems, for the convenience of the public."
"Thank you," said Wilfrid feelingly. "I felt sure of your co-operation. This is the notice. We are having a few copies struck off in type, and they will no doubt be here some time during the day or to-morrow."
"Read 'er out, boss," said the big man. "Let's 'ear what she says."
Wilfrid spread the copy out on the counter, and read as follows:—
"'The above reward will be paid to the person or persons giving such information as will lead to the discovery, alive or dead, of Charles Horace Medway, alias Higgins, alias Bart, a gum digger. Height 5 feet 9 inches. Age 36 years. Of fair complexion. Tawny moustache, otherwise clean-shaven. Grey eyes. Was dressed in a brown store suit, nearly new. White palm hat. Was last seen on the 16th instant, between 12 and 1 a.m., in the vicinity of the dead-house at the "Scarlet Man." Information to be given to Dr. Wilfrid Hamilton, of Parawai, or the undersigned, from whom, on fulfilment of the conditions, the reward may be obtained.
"'(At the whare of Jessamine Olive).'"
"By gum, it ought to fetch 'im," said the big man admiringly, slapping his leg. "'Tawny complexion, otherwise clean-shaven, alias Higgins.' Durned if you 'aven't touched 'im off like a lookin'-glass."
Wilfrid looked pleased to the verge of fatuity.
"Charge these gentlemen's glasses, Mr. Upmore," he said. "We'll drink to the speedy claiming of the reward."
The toast was duly honoured, Wilfrid contenting himself with a glass of ginger ale.page 278
By the aid of some postage-stamp margins he secured the notice to the wall outside, and bidding the company a cheerful good-day, mounted his horse and rode off.
His visit had resulted in the acquisition of two fresh pieces of information: one was the innkeeper's christian name, and it formed the first link in the chain of circumstantial evidence which was soon to enmesh Upmore in its folds; the other was the certainty that Bart's whereabouts was known to one, if not the whole, of his recent companions, and that that one had it in his power to secure the reward if he chose. This, however, threw a dread complexion on the man's disappearance. If his fate were known and not instantly revealed, it must be because his continued absence was due to no accident, but to some cause it was necessary to conceal. It became, then, unlikely that the search now being prosecuted would be fruitful of results. Far more stringent measures would need to be taken to unearth the mystery.
On his way back to the cabin he encountered Hugh, and the sight of the young man determined him on a course he had been debating en route.
"We can do no more here," he said. "Baringbroke has the thing in hand, and we may safely leave it to him. Let us ride into Parawai and ring up the police."
"Very well," said Hugh, nothing loath; and they turned their horses on to the road.
A short distance past the inn they came suddenly on two men seated among the bushes on the roadside, apparently in deep conversation.
The men started on hearing the approach of the horses, and one of them threw himself back as though to escape notice. Wilfrid recognised his recent com-page 279panions and nodded genially to the sandy man as he cantered by. A curve of the road took them almost immediately out of sight.
Hugh, looking somewhat excited, pulled in his horse.
"That is the man," he said, "the one who leaned back. I could swear to him anywhere."
"You will have the opportunity of doing so before long," Wilfrid replied. "Where are you going?"
"Back," said Hugh.
Wilfrid wheeled his horse across the road.
"Stand aside, Wilf," said Hugh, his eyes smouldering.
"Don't be a young fool," was the response.
Wilfrid, however, was no match for a man who had spent the greater portion of his life on a stock farm, and in a few moments he found himself galloping in Hugh's wake round the bend. He was greatly relieved a moment later to discover that the men, probably anticipating what had actually occurred, had removed from where they were sitting and were now no longer in sight.
"Come, Hugh," he said impatiently, as the young man, after galloping in and out among the bushes, still showed signs of continuing the search; and Hugh, with a last fierce glare across the field, turned to follow him.
"You are a headstrong young beggar," Wilfrid remarked amiably, "and it is not the first time I have told you so."
"H'm!" said Hugh.
"Is that all you have to say for yourself? If your father had thrashed you when you were a boy you might have grown into a decent, respectable citizen instead of a—a——"
"Try again," Hugh said, with a slow smile, his anger beginning to evaporate.page 280
"Mule," Wilfrid concluded as he set his horse in motion.
An hour's canter brought them in sight of the township, and they dismounted at Doctor Hamilton's gate.
The doctor was in the garden, and came forward to greet them with considerable friendliness. He had formed a strong liking for Hugh, which had been only momentarily interrupted by the affair of the broken engagement, and he now allowed his liking to display itself.
"I am glad to see you, my boy," he said. "We were expecting you yesterday, but Esther tells me you were detained looking for someone who is supposed to have met with an accident I hope you succeeded in finding him."
"No, sir; I am sorry to say he is not found," Hugh replied.
"Dear, dear.! The man they call Bart, I am told. Well, let us hope it is nothing serious. The boy will take your horse round to the stables. Esther is in the house somewhere. You know your way about."
"Thank you, sir," said Hugh, colouring and looking longingly at the open doorway of the house.
The doctor smiled and then sighed. "You will excuse me if I get back to my paper," he said. "I was in the middle of a very interesting case when you arrived." And he returned to his seat on the lawn.
The "very interesting case" must have been one attended by unusual difficulties, for for half an hour the doctor did not turn a page, and the downcast eyes which regarded the sheet fixedly at one point were full of sad reverie.
Was he, perhaps, thinking of his young wife, dead for nearly twenty years, or of the daughter who had sprung page 281up into womanhood unperceived? Of the old, old story unfolding itself afresh and imagining itself to be original; or of the story that opened so brightly and finished so abruptly so many weary years ago?
He was startled to feel an arm round his neck and a kiss lightly implanted on his brow. Esther, clothed in a new and dazzling beauty, knelt beside him.
"Look, father," she said, stretching a hand out to Hugh, "this is your son, your eldest, and youngest, and only son. How do you like him?"
"Very well," said the doctor, regarding the pair with kindly eyes.
"I have asked your daughter to marry me, Doctor Hamilton," Hugh said, "and she has promised. I love her, sir, and will do my utmost to make her happy. I have as much money as we shall need—but that is nothing. They say I am a bit headstrong in my temper, but I will try to cure that. I will try to make her a good husband."
"Wasn't that nicely said?" Esther asked, giving her father's neck a little squeeze and looking with a heightened colour on the manful form of her lover as he blurted out his aspirations.
"Very, indeed," the doctor replied, stretching a hand out to the young man. "So it is a love match, my children?"
"Yes, sir," said Hugh. "I loved her from the first moment I saw her, and she loved me."
"Well I never!" exclaimed Esther, opening her eyes.
"You know you did," Hugh said, turning a serious gaze upon her. "You told me so not five minutes ago."
Esther gasped and then broke into a merry laugh.
"Oh, you simpleton!" she said; "I will never tell you anything like that again." But her looks belied her.page 282
"I know of no better foundation for marriage," said her father gently, "than love. Though men of learning and intellect have again and again set their seal to the doctrine that there are other matters of greater and more enduring importance, yet love has this advantage over them all, that it is the only foundation justified and sanctioned by nature. If I look into my own life," he continued, softly stroking Esther's hand and gazing with unseeing eyes across the lawn, "I could not without blasphemy breathe one word against a marriage founded on love alone. May your happiness be as great as mine was. May it be—as mine was not—enduring."
Dinner was over half an hour ago. The darkness of a moonless night had settled on the little township, relieved only by the scattered lights of the settlement and the flashing of the constellations overhead. Away back in the native village a huge fire made a brilliant opening in the darkness, and sounds of chanting and shouting betokened the progress of some native celebration. From the open casements of the dining-room a band of light fell across the lawn, but all the remainder of the garden was bathed in a restoring blackness.
The three young people were perambulating the lawn, crossing the band of light at intervals and again plunging into the darkness. Hugh and Esther preserved a happy silence, but Wilfrid had struck a vein of talkativeness and was exploiting it generously in their behalf.
"Tell me when I bore you," he said, with a thoughtfulness that did him credit. "If you would sooner do a little spooning, say the word."
"Turi, turi!" said Esther.page 283
"Which means 'shut up,' I believe. Well, to resume. I went into the hotel, and there, seated on the bench, were two of the ugliest customers my eyes had ever lighted upon. They did not seem pleased to see me, strange to say, and the little sandy one appeared to take the utmost offence at my boots, which he continued silently to compare with his own during the whole time I remained there. The man with the swanlike neck––"
"And a small head?" Esther asked.
"Yes, I see you identify him."
"Oh!" exclaimed Esther, "and the other one will be Sandy George. I remember he told me something horrible about Sandy George."
"Good," said Wilfrid. "Sandy George exactly fits him, and I am glad to have that little extra bit of information. Well, I could see by their faces that they knew what I was after before I opened my lips."
There was a slight motion in the eleagnus hedge of the garden and Esther drew back with a shiver.
"Are you cold?" Hugh asked, with instant anxiety.
"No," she said, "but talking of that man always makes my blood run cold."
"Then we won't talk of him," said Wilfrid. "There are a thousand subjects for a night like this. Look at the Milky Way, trembling like an arch of white fire."
They crossed the band of light and were again immersed in the shadow.
"What is going on back there?" Wilfrid asked, indicating the Maori settlement, as a long, weird wailing filled the air.
"A bone-scraping," Esther replied. "They have been bringing some of their ancestors up from the Kaipara and are preparing the bones for burial."
"Pah!" said Wilfrid. "How the savage imagination page 284delights in the horrible! After all, the education we give them only amounts to a starch-glaze. They lose it in contact with their kind, and constant intercourse with the white man is needed to preserve it."
"I am not sure you are right," Esther remarked. "The bone-scraping is or was in a sense a religious ceremony. It bore some relation to the after life. But nowadays the young natives look upon this and similar ceremonies merely as occasions for gorging themselves with meat and kumeras, and that, I suppose, is an effect of education."
"Why are you so silent, Hugh?" Wilfrid asked suddenly. "Are you at peace with all men?"
"Yes," Hugh replied slowly; "I am content now to cry quits."
"What about the folks at home?"
"I have written to them; they will have my letter by this."
Wilfrid drew a breath of relief, and they passed again out of the shadow into the light.
The wailing in the native settlement had ceased, and in that direction all was quiet. Only the intermittent shrilling of the crickets disturbed the silence.
The lamp in the little office across the road had been turned out several minutes since, and the road outside the garden was buried in darkness.
Suddenly, without warning, breaking ruthlessly on the serene stillness and beauty of the night, came the report of a pistol close at hand. Hugh started violently, and Esther shrank back, leaving the two men for an instant close together.
"Get her inside," said Hugh, in a strange, uncertain voice.
Wilfrid, his heart frozen with the terror of what he page 285suspected, turned sharply to his cousin. "Run in, Esther," he commanded.
For an instant it seemed as though she would obey him, but a moment later her arms were round the swaying form of her lover. "Oh, my dear one!" was all she said.
His eyes smiled on her as he sank to his knees, and then to the ground, dragging her down with him.
"Quick, Esther," said Wilfrid, in ringing tones. "Rouse the house and bring lights. Keep calm; everything may depend upon you."
She rose instantly, and without a word fled into the house.