The Fortune-Telling House - Aidan de Brune - ebook

The Fortune-Telling House ebook

Aidan de Brune

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Another breathtaking novel by the master of mystery Aidan de Brune. What is the secret of the derelict mansion in the Australian countryside? „The Fortune-Telling House” is a fast-paced mystery, with good twists and turns where you can find the answer. Aidan de Brune provides a thrill of another sort! The author has acquired an admirable technique of the sort demanded by the novel of intrigue and mystery. De Brune is one of those thriller writers who were in their day wildly popular, but are today little read. He was a prolific author who wrote in a variety of genres.

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Liczba stron: 341

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER I

THERE was a slackening of the speed of the motor-cycle. Sam Laske said “damn” and pressed the accelerator. The speed of the machine did not increase; it continued to slacken. Sam looked at the top of the hill before him, and tried to do comparative sums in terms of yards and probable remains of petrol in the tank. The machine continued to lose speed, but perhaps under the urge of the owner’s fervid objurgations, faltered up to the crest of the hill, then serenely died–somewhat in the manner of a good politician (if there is such a thing) taking a final farewell of the world he had so well helped to misgovern.

When a motor-cycle “dies” on its rider, that rider, perforce, has to take the supports Nature has so generously provided. Sam dismounted and kicked the cycle struts into place; then stared about him. Before him stretched an almost straight road ending at a distance of probably three miles in a small cluster of houses.

“That’s Barralong,” said Sam, addressing his motor-cycle and the scenery in general. “Now, I wonder! Is there a pump there?” The cycle did not reply; its headlamp, cock-eyed as must be the headlamp of any motor-cycle owned by a newspaper-man, stared straight, or nearly so, ahead. “Damn!” said Sam again. He turned and looked back on the road he had recently passed. He visualised his late route, and shook his head.

There were several steep hills on the stretch of road back to Southbury and, although he knew of several very satisfactory petrol pumps in that city, he did not feel inclined to push the heavy Emperor motor-cycle up even the least of those hills.

In his thirty three years on the planet named Earth, Sam had never claimed he was worth looking at. He was short, somewhat stumpy in build and wore a freckled sandy complexion on an almost round face, decorated mainly by snub-cum-tip-tilted nose, blue eyes and a rather absurd round mouth. His hair was ginger in colour, kinky and with the exasperating habit of standing straight up towards the heavens ten minutes after hard labour and much water had forced it to a presumably recumbent permanent position.

While motoring, and Sam motored whenever possible, the aforesaid hair became grey, owing to liberal applications of road dust, supplied gratis by the various Roads Boards of the State, who carefully refrained from watering good, soft roads.

Sam never wore a hat. He claimed that hats produced baldness and that in the interests of Sydney Beautiful he dared not cramp his appearance to that extent. An editor, who daringly took Sam to task for his absolute disregard of the dictates of civilised attire was seriously informed that journalist salaries did not run to head gear, when there were people in the city who had the unfeeling habit of selecting the best hat on the restaurant hat-rack, when they had finished their fifteen-penny meal. While he made this announcement Sam stared so hard at the hat rack in the corner on which hung one of Stetson’s latest, that the editor in question blushed, rather becomingly.

“Ten miles to Southbury–and at least ten hills! Three miles to Barralong–and possibly that’s a one-horse township without a petrol pump.” observed Sam; and a watching crow in the solitary tree that decorated that part of the landscape, said “Caw,” loudly.

Sam looked up, and nodded. “I agree, old chap,” he added. “It’s the three in favour, ‘specially as they’re downhill. Yes, the three has it!”

Kicking up the struts, Sam pushed the cycle over the crest of the hill and slid into the saddle. Using the last drop of petrol in the tank to gather motion power, he started down the hill. His prayer at the moment was that no wandering country yokel with horse and cart would; turn suddenly, on to the main road, for that would necessitate braking, and he had no brake for the language that would result if he had to push the heavy machine any part of the distance to the township.

Sam Laske had left Southbury that mid-day after a very unsatisfactory interview with the proprietor of that city’s morning daily newspaper. The previous day Sam had left Sydney for Southbury. The reason for the journey of four hundred miles, twice covered, being that he had acquired a “hunch” that the Sydney “Daily Post” would probably and shortly dispense with his valuable services.

Sam had no great passion for work, but he had a supreme dislike of being without work. A friend informed him that he had heard Southbury’s “Valuator„ would shortly require a senior reporter. Sam now badly wanted to meet that “friend” and give expression to certain observations anent people who “knew” that had occurred to him during the past few hours.

No wandering boys in charge of cumbersome wagons drawn by long and unmanageable teams appeared on the road between the hilltop and Barralong. Abreast the first house of the township, Sam optimistically switched on the gas and watched for signs of a garage. He saw only an hotel, and realised the truth of the saying that man is the more important animal of creation.

He strutted the machine and entered the half-open bar door. The bar-room was not large, about the size of an ordinary living room of a medium-sized house. Across one end of the room stood a bar-counter, decorated with designs from the bottoms of many wet pots and glasses. Beyond the counter were several shelves, backed by fly-blown mirrors. On the shelves were bottles, labelled with known and unknown signs, tempting to the human palate. Midway among the shelves was a door. There were two more doors in the public portion of the room, beside the one by which Sam had entered. The doors appeared to lead to the interior of the house. Indifferently spaced on the walls of the bar-room were sporting prints of a bygone era, interspersed by a modern note obtained by illustrations torn from Sydney’s illustrated journals, held to the faded wall-paper by rusty pins.

There were no signs of humanity within the building. Sam knocked sharply on the counter with a florin; knocked again–and said things. He went to the door through, which he had entered the hotel and gazed out on a sun-drenched street. There was no one in sight. He went to one of the doors he presumed led to the interior of the house and gazed out on a deserted passage.

Despairingly, he returned to the counter and rapped again with his florin. Then–

The door behind the counter opened a bare nine inches and a towelled head pushed through the opening.

“Wantin’ anything’” asked the face beneath the head.

“Pot of bitter,” said Sam.

The head disappeared, leaving Sam in doubt whether it was owned by male or female body; if the latter, then it had never known a permanent wave. A voice lifted in wailing complaint at the rear of the house, echoing his words: “Pint o’ bitter!”

Sam waited, idly spinning the two-shilling piece on the bar counter. He waited–and his thirst grew rampant. Almost he had decided that he would I have to increase his order to a quart, when the door opened and a man stepped into the space between shelving and bar.

“Pint of bitter,” said the man, and seized the handle of a beer-pump, with the other hand groping for the necessary utensil. Sam nodded. He stared at the man, and the man was well worth staring at.

Tall, an inch or more over six feet, he was strongly, yet finely proportioned; even the rough clothing he wore could not conceal the muscular beauty of his long, lean body. His face was strong, thin and lean. The forehead was unlined and broad; rather heavy eyebrows, well-opened light-blue eyes in which lurked humour; his nose was long, straight and firm. He wore no moustache to hide well-shaped lips, and was carefully shaved. The lips were humorous, to match his eyes, and displayed eloquently a firm, shapely chin. Sam’s eyes went to the hands. They were long-fingered and muscular, almost aristocratic in design.

Sam accepted the pot of beer set on the counter before him with gratitude, and immediately concealed his face–or most of it, in the sweet-smelling pot.

“Thanks,” he said, after a decent interval, well employed; and the words were not conventionally spoken.

“Cycling?” asked the hotel-keeper. Sam nodded. He waited until he withdrew his lips from the edge of the tankard before replying. “Yes. Garage in this township?”

“No,” said the man.

“No petrol pump?” asked Sam.

“No,” repeated the host of the hotel. He appeared to be a man of a few words.

“Damn!” said the journalist, with fervour. The word was a favourite, on occasions. It expressed so much with so little exertion.

“No gas?” questioned the hotel-keeper, after a pause.

Sam shook his head. Here was not an occasion for words. No self-respecting hotel-keeper would ask such a question. Journalists do not make a habit of pulling up in one horse townships unless requiring petrol.

“Where’s the next town?” he asked, when another application to the tankard had caused the anticipated drought.

“Waitamine,” instructed the hotel-man. “Ten miles.”

“And thirteen miles back to Southbury!” The newspaper-man groaned. “What the–”

Then a thought came: “What’s, your name?” he asked. “It’s over the door.”

The man smiled unexpectedly. Sam stared at the hotel-keeper a moment, then pushed his pot across the counter. “Fill that up and collect your own poison.” He turned from the bar and sauntering out on to the road, looked up at the inscription over the door.

“Good lor’” he ejaculated, then went back to the bar and lifted the refilled pot, noting with, satisfaction that the host had one of a similar nature before him. The man who drinks his own beer knows that it is good! He nodded at the pot in the man’s hand. “You deserve that–and a lot more of ‘em!”

The hotel-keeper nodded and lifted the tankard to his lips. “The police insist on it,” he said, and his lips curved humorously as he spoke. “Rather funny, over a country pub, isn’t it?”

“I’ll say it is!” Sam stared at the man. “So you’re Sir Archibald Witherton Skirlington,” he observed. “I think I’ve heard of you.”

“Thanks.” Skirlington grinned wryly. “You’re a newspaper-man, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“You people made enough fuss over that.” He nodded at the door.

“Not us.” Sam shook his head. “You’re flattering yourself.”

“They had a couple of columns in the Valuator when I first took over this place,” Skirlington explained. “Each year since, at licensing time, there’s the better part of a column. Last time the local man wanted an interview on how it felt for a real baronet to handle a beer-pump.”

“He would!” Sam was superior, and emphatic. “That’s the bumpkin idea of news. Sorry, old man, can’t you scrap it.

“Not while I keep a pub.”

“Well, I’d like you better if you kept a petrol pump.” Sam scratched his ginger-grey thatch. “Now, what the devil am I to do?”

“Get it from Southbury,” suggested Skirlington. “A train comes in at Barralong from there about five in the morning.”

“Blackmail?” asked Sam. “No petrol pump in the town by order of our local baronet-host, so that stranded motorists have to stay the night while they import gas!”

“Not so good!” Skirlington’s good-looking features twisted in a broad grin. “We’re too close to Southbury and Waitamine. Most cars speed through. They even get their drinks at the big places, so don’t look out for my sign.”

“Hard luck!” Sam pondered a moment. “How do I communicate with the garage at Southbury?”

“‘Phone.” The hotel-man pointed to an instrument in a corner of the room. “You pay me for the gas and I ‘phone the order. They trust me!”

“That’s broke it!” Sam stared in-mock amazement. “Trust a baronet-hotel keeper. Sure, they’ve got nerve down this way. All right!” He tossed a note on the counter. “Take for the late drinks, a new set-up, and the gas out of that.”

Skirlington made change, then went to the telephone. For some moments he spoke into the instrument, then turned to the journalist.

“All right. The gas will be here.”

He surveyed the dirty overalls in which the journalist was dressed, the dusty hair and grime-streaked face. “You could do with a clean-up.”

“I could.” Sam expressed sincere agreement. “Neither Southbury nor Waitamine consider it necessary to water their roads.”

“They don’t consider it necessary to mend their roads until they are impassable, though they keep quite a number of men on the dole.”

The hotel-keeper spoke almost bitterly, as the Australian tax and rate payer has long learned to express himself, “Got any kit?”

“The swag’s on the cycle.” Sam turned to the road-door. “What shall I do with Matilda’s little boy?”

“Matilda’s little boy?” queried Skirlington blankly.

“Sure! He carries Matilda,” explained the journalist.

Skirlington laughed. “There’s a shed at the back.” He followed Sam to the road-door and pointed ‘down to the left. “Go through that gate and you will see it before you. I’ll meet you in the yard.”

Three-quarters of an hour later Sam Laske descended from his bedroom, changed, clean and refreshed. He looked in at the bar-room, but there was no one there, so he wandered out on the road. There are few less inspiring places, even for an Australian poet, than an Australian country township on a hot afternoon. So little human and mechanical noises stir the somnolent air that the humming of a casual-passing bee sounds like the roar of a low-hovering aeroplane. Even radio-torturers succumb to the lethargic influences, for Mrs. “Farmer” has not acquired yet the belief of her suburban sister, that housework is distinctly helped by the strains of an old-time popular song, or the wailings of an American crooner, distributed over the air from a grinding gramophone record. Barralong in no way differs from the hundreds of townships decorating the vast Australian countryside, except, perhaps, that it is, if anything, less inspiring than its fellows.

Sam Laske stood in the small shade of the doorway and gazed disconsolately on the bleak scene. He mentally counted the hours that lay before him, before the longed-for petrol was landed from the early-morning train, and groaned. Before him in the western distance rose a slight ridge of land, bits of roofs and chimney of a farmhouse on the opposite slope, showing on the ridge. On the slope, facing the hotel were farmlands, decorated with the monotonous brown of growing wheat. There was not a single tree in that direction. Before the hotel ran the main road, beyond the road was a patch of bare earth, and beyond that another, narrower road, bordered on the far side by the farm lands fence. The bare patch of land between the two roads, apparently the “village-green” was triangular in shape, its apex to the south, where the by-road met the main road. At the base of the triangle, some hundred yards to the north of the hotel, a by-road joined the main to the by-road.

The view to the south was even less inspiring. The ridge of land on which showed the top of farm-buildings ran southwards, curving to meet the main road some three miles to the south. That formed the hill down which Sam had coasted, and at the summit of the hill stood one solitary-tree. The journalist turned to the north. There the view was cut-abruptly, some half-mile away, by heavy bushland, extending far to the west and east. Sam walked out on to the road and gazed eastwards. In that direction he saw only farmlands, bare of all but-the ubiquitous wheat. Close by the hotel stood three houses. One was evidently a general store, made out of a converted private house and the other–well Sam had three tries for a guess, and decided he had guessed wrong each time. He was too lazy to go the few yards down the road; on an exploration. He sighed. Why, such a place would stunt even the imagination of a detective-story writer.

“Seen for three hundred and sixty-four days a year it is rather monotonous,” observed a voice behind, him.

“Hullo, Bart.” Sam turned with relief. “And what of the three hundred and sixty-fifth, day?”

“That is spent in Southbury, obtaining renewal of my license and dodging the professional activities of the local reporter.”

“You poor devil!” Sam looked at the man in saddened wonder. “Do you mean to tell me you exist here all the year round?”

“Just about. Man must have his refreshment.”

“Married?”

“No.” A pause, then: “Say, are you interviewing me.”

“The gods of the countryside forbid!” Sam grinned. “I’ll acknowledge to curiosity, but not at present on paper. In. fact, as things are, it looks as if I shall be needing a paper to be curious in.”

“Sacked?”

“Not yet; but so close to it that you wouldn’t notice that it stares a newspaper-man in the face. Times of depression, you know, and journalists–”

“Are sacrificed to make a newspaper holiday,” interjected the hotel-man.

A voice called from the rear of the building. Skirlington shouted an answer, turned, and beckoned to the newspaperman.

“When you’re tired of the beauties of nature, as represented in Barralong,” he observed, halting before a door in the passage of the house, “you may find something here to interest you.”

He pushed open the door and motioned Sam to enter the room. The journalist stared. He was gazing on a comfortably furnished room, crowded with books. A deep Morris chair set in a window-nook, caught his attention, looking particularly inviting.

“Lord!” he exclaimed, turning to the hotel-man. “No wonder you don’t protest more forcibly against the three hundred and sixty-four days. He stepped forward, turned and looked at the man behind him.

“Say Bart., this isn’t the hotel public room?”

Skirlington smiled, almost sadly. “No, I don’t encourage the native here; but somehow, you’re different–“ He hesitated, and turned to the door. “If you’re not too tired we’ll have a yarn tonight, after closing. It’s a long time since anyone has stayed in the hotel who looked on a book other than a strange curiosity.”

“But–”

“Sorry, I have to go.” Skirlington interrupted. “Turn the key in the lock When you come out, please.”

The door closed gently, leaving Sam staring about him. For a time he wandered along the line of shelving, studying the titles of the books, renewing old friendships, making new acquaintances. At length, he made a selection and went to the Morris chair. For some time he read, then dropped the book to his knees, sighed, luxuriously, and leaned back idly, allowing the physical and mental comfort of the room to gradually take possession of his senses.

Baronet and hotel-keeper, Archibald Skirlington knew how to make himself comfortable!

“Had a good sleep?”

Skirlington’s voice roused the newspaperman from the slumbers which had succeeded to meditation. He jerked upright in his chair and the book on his knees slid to the floor. He bent and retrieved it, dusting the cover and flicking the leaves. He looked at the man standing in the doorway, and laughed.

“So I did sleep.” Sam yawned. “Lord, I think anyone would sleep in this practical representation of Sleepy Hollow. I don’t think I could write a ten-line par. on a Garden-made revolution against a Lang Government.”

Skirlington grinned. He took the book from Sam’s hands and put it in its place on the shelves.

“Tea’s ready,” he announced. “You won’t mind having it with me, I hope. You see, we haven’t a dining-room here, nor set meals, except when anyone, like you, gets held up here by road trouble.”

“Of course not. I’m bored stiff with my own society, always.”

Sam followed his guide and host through a connecting door into another room’ of the suite.

“Say, you make yourself comfortable here.”

“Another of my private rooms.” Skirlington laughed gently. “There are three of them. On the other side of the book-room is my bedroom. I’m afraid I’m rather a sybarite.”

“Except that sybarites don’t bring casual visitors into rooms like these,” commented Sam, accepting the seat at the table Skirlington indicated.

“Well, not exactly–but I have made an exception for you.”

The baronet went to a small sideboard, picking up carving knife, and fork. “You won’t mind me acting as butler, carver and waiter, will you. My assistants here are–well–”

“Just so.” The newspaper-man nodded. “Your assistants are more used to the casual farm-hand passer-by dining in the kitchen.”

Sam enjoyed the dinner that Skirlington had named tea. He found the food excellent and cooked, suspecting his host of the culinary work. He enjoyed the bottle of excellent claret, set on the table and, at the end of the meal, he accepted the cigar from a box pushed across the table to him, with a belief that his lines could not have fallen in better place.

“The bar.” Skirlington answered.

“I have to take that myself. I’ll be there until eight, or even later, maybe. We don’t worry about legal closing hours in places like these. Even the patrolling ‘John’ likes his pint when he reaches Barralong, whatever the hour may be, and he doesn’t mind company with it. Coming?”

“May as well.” Sam got up from the table stiffly. “It’ll be experience and I may pick up a bit of talk I can use.”

“You’ll be lucky.” Skirlington led from the room. Crossing the passage he opened a door. “Come through this way.”

Entering, the room, Sam found himself in a tiny bar-parlour, an open door on his right revealing a partial view of the bar. Skirlington motioned him to follow into the bar, raised the flap of the counter, and ushered his guest to a comfortable cane-armchair beside a small table.

“I say,” Sam exclaimed suddenly. “These things weren’t here this afternoon.”

“They weren’t.” The hotel-keeper agreed. “I thought you’d prefer to sit down, though, rather than stand about for a couple of hours, or so. I’ll have another chair brought in and if anyone interesting, like Jess Markham, drops in, I’ll introduce them.”

Seated in the comfortable chair, Sam watched his host prepare for the evening trade. Time passed and no one came into the bar. In the open the sun dipped beyond the ridge opposite the hotel, and shadows lengthened. Skirlington came from behind the bar and lit the big lamp hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the room.

“Trade slow,” observed Sam. “Always is, about this time. We don’t keep city hours down here. The men have to look to their stock, and they don’t come in from the fields until sundown. They then have tea–and possibly wander down here for an hour or so–”

The man turned swiftly to the door, listening intently.

“There’s someone coming–and they seem to be in a hurry.”

Sam turned idly in the chair so that he could see the door. Now he heard hurrying footsteps. A moment, and a man burst through the half open door into the room–a man dirty and unkempt, and suffering from intense excitement. Before him, clutched in both hands, he carried an old smoke-begrimed, dented billy, apparently containing something heavy that clinked with his footsteps. Half-running through the room he deposited his burden on the counter.

“Gimme a drink! Gimme a drink!” he mumbled huskily. “Quick, or I’ll bust!” He half-crouched over the old billy, fondling it lovingly, slobbering with greed and excitement. A moment, and he looked up at Skirlington, standing well back from the bar, surveying him curiously.

“Gimme a drink!” he mumbled. “Why don’t you hurry? Quick, I wanta drink–brandy–whiskey–anything-”

“Cut that out!” The hotel-keeper spoke briskly. “What’s your trouble and where do you come from?”

“Gimme a drink! Quick! Quick!” The man’s voice went a quick crescendo. He was actually dribbling into the old can.

“Can you pay for it?” Skirlington thrust the man’s head back, peering into his face. “We don’t give drinks to anyone who come in here, play-acting.” He waited a moment, then thrust the man’s head back harshly. “Listen! Got any money?”

“Money?” The tramp laughed shrilly. “Money! Oceans of it! All the money in the world! Look!”

With a sudden movement he knocked over the billy. From the mouth of the can rolled out a stream of yellow coins. Skirlington sprang forward quickly, snapping his hands down quickly to prevent the flow of coins from rolling from the counter to the floor. He caught at the man’s wrist and snapped the can upright. For a moment the tramp resisted, then gave way to the hotel-man’s superior strength. Skirlington lifted the billy and sharply upended it on the counter, as he drew it up from the contents, a pile of gold coins was revealed.

Sam had watched the scene with interest. At sight of the gold he came to the bar-counter. The pile of coins filled him with amazement.

“Here!” He caught the sundowner by the shoulder, swinging him about. “Where did you get that?”

“Where did I get it?” The swaggie stared, blear-eyed from one man confronting him to the other.

Suddenly he wrenched himself from Sam’s grip and flung himself on to the pile of coins.

“They’re mine! Mine, I tell you! All mine; I found them!”

For minutes there was silence in the room. Sam stared at the man crouching gloatingly over his treasure. He caught the inquiry in Skirlington’s eyes, and nodded at the bottle on the shelves behind the bar. The hotel man understood. He turned and picked up a brandy bottle, tilted a liberal dose into a beer tankard and filled the pot to the top. He slid the pot in front of the swaggie.

“Here, man! Hold up, and drink this.”

The man seized the tankard, tilted his head back and swallowed the contents greedily, letting trickles of liquor run down from his mouth, over his bedraggled beard on to his clothing.

Suddenly he took the pot from his mouth and tossed it oh to the floor, flinging himself on the piled gold. He scooped the coins into his joined hands. They more than filled the space, overflowing and rolling in all directions.

“Cut that out!” Sam spoke sharply. “Put that money back into the billy and tell us where you got it from. Quick!”

His curt tones dominated the man. “Do as I tell you!”

The man stared blankly at the journalist. Sam made to push him aside, and be resisted roughly. He scooped up the coins again, this time allowing them to fall slowly, almost one by one, into the billy.

“Now then!” Sam caught the man masterfully by the shoulder. “Where did you get that gold?”

“Out of the house–the old house up the road,” the man mumbled slowly. All his attention was given to the billy of gold on which he kept his trembling hands. He shook it, tilting it to let the coins run from side to side, in musical jingle, while over his face spread a vacant, satisfied grin.

“What house?” asked Sam, impatiently. He caught the man by his shoulder and shook him vigorously. “Come on; tell me! What house?”

“The house where I slept last night up there in the bush. I dreamed and–and when I woke up I went to search–and I found it! It’s mine, I tell you! It’s mine!”

CHAPTER II

„–NINETY-SIX, ninety-seven, ninety-eight–” Sam Laske was bending over the bar-counter counting the gold coins from the billy and piling them up in twenties, in ordered rows.

“Lor’, Bart., there’s five hundred of them!”

Skirlington nodded. He glanced from the piles of gold to the swaggie, huddled in a corner of the settee. A puzzled frown came in his eyes and he walked through the gate in the counter and came round to stand before the man. The tramp looked up, bewilderedly, then mechanically stretched out his hand and took the pot of beer, heavily laced with brandy, standing on the settee beside him.

The hotel-man took it out of his hands. “You’ve had enough for the present,” he said. “Now you hand over some information.”

“Wha’ for?” grumbled the man.

“We want to know what you’ve been doing for the past twenty-four hours, and where you got that money.”

Skirlington spoke without stress in his voice, only a definite and suppressed curiosity. “Now, where did you camp last night?”

“At th’ big house.”

“The big house, You mean the Darrington place?”

“I sed th’ ‘ouse in th’ bush.” Sam Laske, back to the bar, his elbows on it, gazed on the swaggie with curiosity. He noted the strange change of accent. Up to that moment the man had spoken fairly good English–now he had dropped into patter of the road.

“Where?” asked the baronet.

“Abart ‘arf a-mile up th’ road.”

“That’s Darrington House.”

“Is it? I dunno. It’s the big grey-stone, ‘ouse set in th’ bush–”

“What’s your name?” questioned the newspaper-man suddenly. “Th’ Jay Bird,” The swaggie grinned.

Sam turned to the hotel-keeper. “This man is acting dumb,” he stated, flatly. “You noticed that when he came in here, tensed with excitement, he could speak decently. Now he’s putting up bush talk. Where’s this Darrington House?”

“Up Sydney way, about half-a-mile,” Skirlington said briefly, not taking his eyes from the man on the settee. “About the oldest house in this part of the country. I believe it was built in the early colonial days. Big rambling place, hidden in the bush, nearly a quarter of a mile from the main road.”

“Who does it belong to?” continued the newspaper-man.

“Jess Markham.” Skirlington, half-turning, pointed through the bar-door across the road. “Daresay you noticed his place, over the ridge, when you were outside this afternoon.”

“Who lives at Darrington House?” asked the journalist, intent on one line of thought.

“No one. No one has lived in the house since I came here.” Skirlington paused a moment. “I heard talk that when he first came here after buying the ground hereabouts. Jess Markham moved into Darrington House. He is said to have stated that the place was too big for him, and then built the house across the fields. Got it up in pretty quick time, too.”

“Why?” Sam was puzzled. “Why did he want a new house when he had a well-built stone house of respectable, size on hand? There doesn’t seem to be much sense in that!”

Skirlington grinned.

“There’s a rumour about here that the old house is haunted. I asked Jess Markham if that was the reason, for his move when he was in here one day, and though he got real wild, he didn’t deny it. Just shifted the conversation–and when I showed signs of working back to the subject, drank up and moved off, quick time.”

For some seconds the journalist pondered. The queer instinct that some newspaperman have for news in the course of their work, insisted that here was a mystery awaiting exploration–that close to him was a subject that would probably make excellent copy, if properly probed. He glanced, at Skirlington questioningly and the man stared back at him, his face expressionless.

“Then you believe that yarn?” There was more assertion than question in the journalist’s words. When the hotel keeper did not answer, Sam continued: “You say that house stands in a belt of bushland. How big?”

“Some few hundred acres.”

Sam whistled. “What sort of land?” he asked.

“All the land round here is good.” There was no inflection in Skirlington’s words.

“Then Jess Markham chooses to leave good lands uncleared and uncultivated. Of course there’s no grazing in the bush?”.

The swaggie laughed suddenly. “Grazin’,” he snorted. “Why, a rabbit couldn’t push his way through some of that bush.”

“Good land, uncultivated and ungrazed, allowed to little with bush.” Sam spoke meditatively. He did not look directly at either of the men before him, yet he did not miss one expression, or involuntary movement they made. Long experience had taught him that where country matters are concerned the countryman erects an impenetrable barrier against the city-bred man.

“How much land does Jess Markham own?”

“Nearly two thousand acres–more or less,”

A snore from the swaggie, seated on the bench behind the hotel-keeper drew their attention. Sam passed Skirlington and shook the man roughly by the shoulder. His head rolled and he toppled forward and would have fallen to the ground had not the newspaperman thrust him back, holding him there while Skirlington pulled his legs out, so that he reclined in the corner.

“Drunk!” Sam bent to the man, then faced the hotel-keeper. His attitude became more friendly. “You’ve made him drunk, Bart, ‘course, you laced that beer prettily heavily, with brandy, and I suppose the poor devil had nothing to eat to-day.”

“Had to.” The growing hostility in Skirlington’s manner was disappearing. He smiled suddenly. “Can’t have an old fool about the place drooling about a pot of gold he’s founds There’d be something like a riot if any of Markham’s hands walked in and heard him. They’d pull Darrington House down, stone by stone, for half what’s in that billy.”

“Well?” queried Sam, with a sudden grin.

“I’ll call the police station at Southbury,” decided the hotel-man. He moved to the telephone, nodding back at the bar on which stood the billy of gold. “Get that out of the way, Laske. If anyone comes in and sees it, there’ll be awkward questions asked.”

Sam nodded. He went round the bar and found some brown paper and string. In this he wrapped the billy, first filling it with the rouleaus of gold he had previously made. He had just tied the last knot when Skirlington hung up the receiver and came to him.

“Sergeant Adson, of the Southbury police, is coming out at once. He’s got a motor-bike and side-car, and pushes it a bit, so he won’t be long.”

“Got a side-car,” said Sam. “You might have asked him to bring out a tin of petrol for me.”

“Never thought of that.” Skirlington grinned. “Besides, if he brought you out gas, I’ll lose my guest–and you’re the first intelligent man I’ve had staying in this hotel since I first came here.” He paused and fingered the parcel Sam had made of the billy and gold. “Say, what shall we do with this?”

“Lock it up in your safe.”

“It belongs to that fellow.” Skirlington nodded, doubtfully at the sleeping man.

“Nowadays gold can only belong to a government,” stated the newspaperman sententiously. “We, the common herd are not fitted to handle so precious a thing; we’re only allowed to have printed bits of paper.”

Skirlington nodded. He picked up the parcel and went into the bar parlour. Sam heard the rattle of keys, and the groan of a heavy door opening. He placed at the sundowner, sleeping heavily in a corner of the settee. On impulse, he went to the man and bent, listening to his breathing.

“Still asleep?” asked the hotel-keeper as he re-entered the bar-room.

“Fast asleep–and he’ll sleep for hours.” Sam turned to the hotel-keeper with a grin. “Say, Bart., that police-sergeant will have it for you when he arrives. He won’t be able to get a word out of this fellow tonight.”

“I had to dose him,” the hotel-keeper defended. “He was half-crazy. There would have been trouble if I hadn’t laced his beer with brandy. Beer alone would only have made him more talkative.”

Sam nodded agreement. He spoke meditatively: “Wonder what he will do with it? Drink it all up in a week or so, more than likely, then go on the bum again, to boast of his mates on the road of the time he found the billy of gold. All the men of the bush have tales like that–of wonderful fortunes that have been in their hands–sometime. Lor’, the luck’s queer–always goes to those to whom it’s little good. Now; Bart; if you or I had found that pot of gold–” He broke off, grinning: “Pot o’ gold! And we spend our days chasing the pot o’ gold at the foot of the rainbow!”

He turned sharply, walked to where the swaggie sat, caught him by. the shoulders and shook him roughly. The man’s head rolled grotesquely on his shoulders; he mumbled, thick words of protest.

“If only we could make him talk!” Sam spoke with exasperation. He turned to Skirlington. “What did he tell us, Bart? Found the gold in the old house! Wonder if there’s any more there?”

He looked down at the sleeping man. “Damn! He’s just got to talk! The ‘John’ will be along any minute now.”

With a sharp exclamation of remembrance, Sam ran out of the bar room to the interior of the house. In a few minutes he returned, carrying a small bottle.

“Forgot all about this,” he said. “Saw it in the cupboard in the bathroom when I was cleaning up. Ammonia. This will cock him up!”

He withdrew the cork and thrust the neck of the bottle under the swaggie’s nose. “Hold his head up, Bart., we’ll give him a full breather of it.”

The roughly applied strong ammonia roused the man. He struggled, coughed and sneezed; then wrenched his head from Skirlington’s detaining hands and fell back against the corner of the settee.

“Warsthmatr!”

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