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ALBERT DORRINGTON

THE HOUSE OF THE SNAKE

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As published in
The Sydney Mail, Australia, 18 April 1928

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Illustration

THE two Chinamen were always watching Lorna from the lamplit corner of the room. There were times when she had to return their bland, feline glances. Her father insisted that their custom kept the roof on the store, kept him from bankruptcy and the beach. Ching Lee and Tung War exported shark oil and tins to China. They employed the native fishermen at Beetle Creek as harpooners and cutters-up. And there were enough sharks off the reefs and inlets to keep a dozen oil junks busy during the season.

Lorna's father, Jim Croydon, kept the store that overlooked the wide-mouthed, mangrove-skirted creek. Times were bad. The gold rush on the Yoda River was a thing of the past. The miners no longer waited in queues outside the store with pill-boxes and jam tins stuffed with gold dust to pay for tea, sugar, flour, and bacon, and that rare miner's luxury, a tin of condensed milk.

So with the passing of the gold boom Jim Croydon sat between the devil and the beach, as they say in New Guinea, with the two Chinamen as his only customers. But Jim hung on to the store; the land in the north was loaded with minerals. At any moment the news of a 'find' might come down the river, and then the big- hearted crowds of men with the pill-boxes and jam-tins would line up once more for the bacon and the et ceteras.


THE night had come up with shifting puffs of air from the forest-darkened river, hot and stifling with the sickly breath of the mangroves. And always this jungle-wrapped river supplied the evening's music, in the way of the big mosquito choir that hit as it sang, and drove men hurriedly to the shelter of their nets and gauze-proof rooms.

Ching Lee and Tung War were seated at the rough table, where the smoking oil-lamp played tricks with the contours of their Mongolian heads and faces. From his pocket Ching produced a hollow black bean, the size of a walnut, and laid it cheerfully on the table. The black bean was supplied with four match-stems in the way of legs. In a little while the bean began to shiver and waddle spasmodically. Incidentally, one of the front legs began to move.

Lorna watched with fascinated eyes as the two Chinamen began to bet on the movements of the hollow black bean that moved hither and yon on four match slicks. Ching would bet that the next movement would come from a hind leg, and Ching always covered his bet with a small heap of gold coins. Tung War would stake that a front leg would step out; and so on, until a pile of sovereigns found its way into the game before midnight.

Before leaving the store Ching released a fierce black ant from the interior of the bean and moistened its feelers with a sticky brown substance he kept in a small metal box. Then very carefully he replaced the ant within the narrow shell.

"You go sleepee now," he murmured, dropping the bean in his pocket.

Tung War smiled like the good loser he was.

"Welly useful lille ant," he confessed with a yawn. "To-mollow ni' him win fo' me. Hi yah!"

Lorna suppressed a shudder as she watched them pass out to the darkness of the creek.

She had almost grown accustomed to this nightly game with the bean and ant. Frequently the white miners played it.. It was all a matter of chance; for no living man could square a black bull- ant.


IT was a month since the last white man had called at the store. His name was Noel Villiers, and he had stayed only one night. He was a young clergyman who had responded to the call of the Sydney Missions. Her father said he was crazy, but somehow Lorna knew better.

Yet it did seem an act of madness for a young, inexperienced minister to land alone in a place like Beetle Creek, and after only a few inquiries concerning the natives in the north-west, to disappear into the unknown. It was hinted that he had gone in the direction of Merke, a native settlement of nearly a thousand souls.

In the argot of the Papuan, Merke means stone god. Perhaps that was why Noel Villiers had gone. Streams of white men and boys had gone that way. The jungle beckoned like a loose-necked siren, a jungle that poisoned and then covered their weary bodies with leaves and the tears of the ever-dripping mangroves. The rapids and torrents drowned them, fever dealt with the few who survived the treacherous streams and crossings.

Her father had tried to restrain Noel Villiers—had pointed out, roughly enough, that the people of the rivers were just human snakes and head-hunters. A lot they cared for the white man's religion. What they wanted was a new kind of head- knife, plenty rum, and liberty to carry off their neighbours' women and children.

Well, Noel had gone, with his books, his soft white hands, his shining eyes, right into the home of the stone gods and the head- hunters. And that was that.

"All the argument in the world won't take the shine out of these fellers' eyes," her father had said. "Once a clergyman comes to Papua with that light in his eye, shut your mouth and let him go. That kid Villiers don't know a head-hunter from a humming-bird."


VILLIERS had gone with a bright, quick step, and a cheery good-bye to Lorna standing on the verandah. The jungle, with its attendant horrors, its hotbeds of disease and witch-doctors, were the very things he had come to see and subdue. He was going to be painfully disillusioned, he said, if he did not encounter these obstacles to human progress. He wanted to meet them where they lived; he wanted to lay his hand on them as a surgeon lays his hand on a septic wound.

Lorna had come upon a bundle of letters that had fallen from his knapsack. They were letters written by his mother, and addressed to him at a certain college in Sydney. She had to read them. And the loving messages in them touched the deep-down woman that lay in her young heart. They smell of lavender and a country home. Poor little grey-haired mother, waiting in her weatherboard rectory for news of Noel's shining deeds—away there in the Gulf of Huon where the stone gods sit! Outside in the darkness of the creek the two Celestials blundered homewards.

It was the sudden whining of Gyp, the Alsatian wolfhound, that startled Lorna. The dog had once belonged to Eugene Detrail, a sub-commandante at the French penal settlement, Noumea. Detrail had paid an official visit to Beetle Creek in reference to the capture of three notorious transporters who had found their way to the Gulf of Huon.

With the assistance of another Alsatian hound, Gyp had led the sub-commandante to the hiding-place of the convicts. Their arrest had been accomplished without a single hitch or the firing of a shot. As a token of gratitude for Jim Croydon and his daughter's hospitality, M. Detrail had presented Gyp to them, with the assurance that the dog would repay a hundredfold for any care and affection bestowed on him. Lorna had always felt secure in the company of the clever, swift-moving animal. And the reward of her kindness and companionship was an almost frantic attachment on the part of the Alsatian wolfhound.

"That dog don't yelp for nothin'." Jim said quietly, as he stepped to the door. The warm, misty darkness touched him like an anaesthetic. And the creek was always alive with the croaking of monster frogs and the movements of big saurians in the mud.

The figure of a man bulged across the track—a doubled-up figure with a tent-fly strapped across his shoulders. He rolled forward and collapsed almost in the doorway of the store. Jim Croydon stooped over him, a match burning between his fingers.

"Why, it's Dave Saunders!" he stated in surprise. "What's up, Dave?" he inquired in a kindly tone, for he had known Saunders for years as one of the straightest miners in New Guinea.

With Lorna's help they placed him on a bed in the spare room. An attack of fever had rendered him almost helpless. He had managed to stagger in from the Yoda field after a life-and-death struggle among the swamps and creeks.


IN the morning he seemed better. His eyes brightened when Lorna entered with a cooling drink and an extra dose of quinine. He talked a trifle feverishly of his recent experiences, which had brought him through the village of Merke, fifteen miles higher up the creek. It was a rotten hole, he muttered, full of witch men and professional magicians with lime in their whiskers. All the black magic he had ever heard of was running loose in Merke. And, worse than all, the people were getting opium from the schooners that visited the coast.

"One of the blamed old witch-doctors has got hold of a young minister chap, a white lad. Dash me if I ain't forgot his name."

"A minister?" Lorna quavered, the empty glass trembling in her hand.

"One of them scented stiffnecks the mission societies send to the islands," Saunders chattered. "He's lying in the house of a witch man, in rags. The headmen say he got hold of a supply of irook (opium) that had been consigned to the village. And they say he won't give it up. He says the stuff is destroying the men and women and boys. I must say," Saunders went on querulously, "that the women and kids are dying like flies. Seems to me the young minister saw red when he got hold of that packet of dope. They're afraid to kill him, him being a kind of holy man; so they're lettin' him die to save trouble."

Saunders fell back on the bed, the fever rising for a moment to his throbbing temples. All the blood drained from Lorna's cheeks. There was no doubt in her mind concerning the identity of the young man in question. And in all this land of rivers and ranges there was not a white man to whom she could turn for help. Her father was too old, too afflicted with rheumatism, to attend to the life-and-death affairs of every young spiritual worker who fell foul of the river natives. The two Chinamen did not approve of missionaries. They certainly would not stir a finger on Noel Villiers's behalf.

Saunders stirred on the bed uneasily, a hectic flush on his brow.

"Kago's the name of the old witch man who's got charge of this minister kid. Regular old beast! Lives in a plank-built house full of big clammy spiders an' stuffed toads. He's got a big, fat iguana chained to the beam of his roof, with a dozen greasy lizards to keep it company. A leery, limewashed old pig is Kaga. Got the whole village scared to death with his pet alligators an' stuffed monkeys. He doesn't want any white missionaries to steal his congregation."


LORNA turned from the room with the blinding sun-glare in her eyes. She tried to think quickly, to steady her thoughts. Her father was busy in the store, unpacking cotton trade goods and taking tally of his old stock. At any moment a new rush might be expected on the Yoda River. And miners needed shirts and clothes, boots and razors. The stock had to be watched.

The soft whining of Gyp, the Alsatian wolfhound, distracted her thoughts. Her father kept the dog chained to his kennel at the end of the garden. Jim said there were reptiles in the bush capable of striking the animal to death. He didn't want the dog to get in touch with the natives. They were too handy with their fishing spears.

"Steady, boy, steady!" she cautioned as she led him out of her father's hearing. In the creek bend was a small but serviceable skiff, with a toy jib sail and slender mast instepped. Lorna knew every current and eddy of the coffee coloured stream. The skiff had a pair of light oars also, and was easily managed. Indeed, she had spent most of her days on this softly-gliding stretch of water. But it was understood that there were limits to her voyagings. Merke was out of bounds for every purpose. Even the police commissioner had advised her to give the village of Merke a wide berth. The skiff was hidden from her father's view by a clump of pandanus scrub.

Further along the creek stood the slab and bark hut where the two Chinamen lived. The place had a neat garden and verandah. Over the low-framed doorway hung a red lantern with the face of a Chinese devil stamped on its four square sides. When lit at night it had a startling effect on stray visitors, especially the beachcombers who came begging food. The Chinamen declared that its light kept away evil spirits. In the daytime it was practically unnoticed.

Gyp trotted beside her to the front of the Chinamen's hut, his stately wolf head upturned as if to read the message in her eyes. She stroked his thick grey fur gently.

"I want to go to Merke, Gyp." she confided thoughtfully as she drew the bundle of lavender-scented letters from her pocket.

The wolfhound sniffed suspiciously, while she wondered vaguely whether this wonderful dog would recall the tall slim body with the shining eyes who had stooped to caress him the morning he left the store.

The Alsatian wolfhound thrust his nose over the letters and looked up. Then he squatted at her feet in the long grass, while the heat struck down from a cobalt sky.

Something was crying softly in Lorna's heart. In the eight years spent with her father in Papua she had seen the sons of women go blindly through the bush and swamps. Some died with hard-won gold between their clenched hands; others were caught in the death tangles of the everlasting mangroves. Here and there a white-faced dreamer plied his calling among the stone idols of the flat-browed river men of the teka forests. Noel Villiers was one of these.

A cake of smuggled opium had brought him into conflict with the witch men and chiefs. Other young ministers had fallen foul of the natives through protesting over-much against acts of human sacrifice. Always something sinister awaited these Sydney boys with the shining eyes and the praying hands. Lorna was conscious of some inner force impelling her as she stared, at the devil lantern over the shanty doorway.

The Chinamen were controlling the gang of native fishermen on the reefs, spearing, netting, and using dynamite among the shoals of hammerhead sharks in the offings. All around the deserted shanty were mounds of broken eggshells. Never in her life had she seen so many eggshells lying around the home of two single Chinamen. The mystery of it held her for a moment until she turned again to the devil lantern above the doorway.

With a sudden inspiration firing her young brain, she released it from the hook and tucked it under her arm. Then she remembered a small electric torch that had been among her father's stock-in- trade. It was under the cushions in the skiff. Followed by the wolfhound, she walked back to the river bend and glanced through the bushes in the direction of the store. Her father was still busy among the cases of trade goods. He would not notice her absence for some time. In the locker of the skiff was a tin of biscuits and some chocolates, enough to last until she returned—if her luck held. The Alsatian wolfhound sprang into the boat, and with ears stiffened watched her fix the tiny jibsail.


THE fingers of death seemed to stretch across this soundless Papuan river. Here and there the jungle formed a dripping wet roof above her head. A few black duck, and cranes, flapped away at her approach. On the distant mudbars a few sun-shy alligators wallowed in the steaming shallows. The swooning heat of noon lay over the jungle-darkened valley. Things moved from her path that she could not see. Giant eels with the girth of boa constrictors rose from the rotting mangrove depths, or flashed their leaden- hued bodies under the slowly moving oar-blades.

But Lorna did not see these horrors of the Papuan deltas. Her softly beaming eyes were only occasionally diverted when small troops of wallabies stole to the river-bank to peer at her and the slow-moving boat. Sometimes a swarm of crimson-crested parakeets followed in her wake, screaming, chattering in a frenzy of excitement.

The Alsatian police dog sat in the forepart of the skiff, chin thrust over the gunwale, alive to each movement of the strange denizens of the river. Lorna felt, the first breath of night as the boat moved slowly under the archway of giant trees. The fluting of wild things in the ranges quickened her pulse, sharpened the sense of danger that brooded in every shadow and bird cry.

The acrid fumes of cooking-fires drifted across the dark stream, far-off voices came with the softly rising wind. The wolfhound stirred and whined uneasily.

Lorna shipped her oars and stroked his bristling head. A bare, foot-trodden bank lay before her. With some difficulty she made fast to a thick bunch of bamboo stems and took breath. There is little or no life in a Papuan village after sundown. Men and women crowd into their stuffy huts to eat and sleep. One or two fires smouldered close to the bank, a proof that the village was not far distant.

Raising the devil lantern she had taken from the Chinamen's shanty, she fitted her electric torch into the candle socket. The Chinamen had used a thick candle, and by wedging some paper from the biscuit-tin into the socket the torch remained rigid and firm. The blaze of the electric torch made the devil-faced lantern visible for half a mile. The gibbering mouths and gargoyle eyes struck a momentary note of terror into Lorna. Within the darkness of the jungle-screened river it flamed like a toy volcano.

She screened it hurriedly with the broad silk scarf she wore. Unfastening her thin leather belt, she ran it through the hanger on top of the lantern, and with a few cajoling words buckled it round the neck of the patient-eyed police dog.

Gyp's early training had fitted him for every kind of enterprise attached to the tracking of men. Removing the scarf from the lantern, she caressed his upturned head, speaking in low tones as she walked beside him up the river-bank in the direction of the village. Gyp trotted along, unmindful of the glowing, devil-faced lantern suspended from his neck. In her hand Lorna carried the packet of lavender-scented letters that had once reposed near Noel Villiers's heart.

At intervals she held them above the poised head of the Alsatian wolfhound.

"Find him, Gyp! Find him, boy! Bad man shut him up. Find him, Gyp!"

Gyp made sounds as he loped forward, soft whines followed by a quickening of his stride into a series of rushes and leaps. The fires of the village smoked dully in the damp night air. Lorna ran in the wake of the fast-travelling police hound. She saw that he was heading for a plank-built, palm-thatched house that stood in the centre of the village square.


ALTHOUGH Lorna ran lightly and without sound, the sharp-eared headmen had sensed something amiss, A dozen tall shadows emerged from a hut on her right and remained bunched together watching her movements.

For one instant the black shadow mass stood eyeing her approach; the next saw the mass split asunder as though a knob of dynamite had exploded in their midst.

"Ai, topa kera na!"

A demoniacal yell, followed by a piercing scream of horror, passed over the square. Devils were plentiful enough in the village of Merke, but the one that came galloping straight towards them was the finished article with the brand of Hades streaming from its burning eyes and lips. Like stampeded cattle the warriors of Merke hurtled from the village, howling, chattering, and pointing to the devil with the burning head that had sprung into their midst. And had not their witch-doctor, Kaga, foretold dire calamities to their tribe only a few hours before? Kaga himself was no believer in illusions, but he headed the stampede for the woods like the good sprinter he was. He preferred his own well domesticated devils that never spat white fire across the village square.

In the passing of a breath the village was empty. Not a man or child remained to argue with the fiery, four-footed fiend that was leaping in the direction of Kaga's house.

Ten yards from the doorway of the witch-doctor's abode the police dog halted, its ears pointed, its eyes watching something that moved in the dark space that led to the interior. The soft tinkle of a chain reached Lorna, a soft metallic tinkle of links being gathered in a corner.

"Steady, Gyp! There's something moving," she called to the dog. "Wait, boy wait!"


THE police dog remained like a statue in bronze, its eyes dilating, the fur of its throat bristling. Lorna crept nearer, for something shouted in her young brain that Noel Villiers was lying inside the dark house. Her straining eyes sought the ground within the doorway. Her glance was interrupted by a pair of eyes that scintillated towards the dog. She recoiled with a sob of terror from a twenty-foot python swaying in and out the doorway. In the light of the lantern she saw that its middle was held by a thick rubber band to a fine chain attached to the doorpost. A sickening fear held her speechless, her hand clutching the belt round the police dog's throat.

"Steady, Gyp," she quavered. "Not—not that thing! No, no; we can't fight that. It's too horrible!"


Illustration

"Steady, Gyp," she quavered. "No, no; we can't fight that.


Again the python's head darted within a foot of the bristling police dog. Again the soft, clink, clink of the chain told her that the reptile had struck as far as it could reach. The Alsatian wolfhound bared its fangs; the muscles of its powerful body gathered for a leap and snatch at the glittering head in the doorway. Lorna held fast to the belt round its throat.

"Steady, boy!" she cautioned faintly. "That thing is death. Easy, boy!" A choking, inaudible word came from the interior of the house. It seemed to end in a long-drawn sigh. Then, after a heart-breaking silence, the voice reached her.

"Who are you? What do you seek with that mask and torch?"

Lorna steadied her shaking limbs, fought back the fainting. sickness that threatened to overcome her.

"I'm Lorna Croydon, from the Creek. I—I want to help you, Mr. Villiers."

Followed a frozen silence, in which she heard the painful movements of something stirring on the ground. Villiers spoke again.

"Thank you, Miss Croydon; but it was foolish to come here. I can't say what has happened to the crowd. They've bolted. That king python Kaga put in the doorway is deadly—been there for weeks. Fever's got me—can't move. If—if I could crawl past the snake sentinel, maybe...."

Another silence, with the police dog straining frantically to close with the darting, flashing head in the doorway. Lorna held tight to the collar.

"They'll come back shortly," Villiers went on painfully. "You see, I got hold of their opium supply. I've been lying on it for days. I don't know why they've held off killing me," he intoned wearily. "Please, don't stay any longer," he begged. "But—you'd serve me if you would take this opium away... Throw it in the creek, burn it, only don't, let these poor fools get it."


WHAT followed was without trickery or design on the part of the fever-stricken young clergyman lying on the damp rushes inside. The package of opium was wrapped in a number of broad, moist banyan leaves loosely held together. The package, flung from his nerve-shaken band, struck the doorpost with a slight thud. At sound of the impact the python's head swayed and dived like a boxer avoiding a blow. But the chain permitted little freedom of action, and the sticky mess of Batavian opium broke in a soft trickle over its fanged jaws. Lorna drew away without relaxing her hold on the collar of the straining police dog. The light of the lantern showed Villiers what had happened. A soft exclamation broke from him.

"That was a fluky shot!" he gasped, with a note of self- reproach in his tone. "Poor old snake, I didn't mean to smother even you with that beastly stuff."

The python thrashed gently to and fro, dived, and shook its flat head as the sticky brown mess oozed into the corners of its mouth. A lump the size of a man's fist was clinging to the little flat space between its glittering eyes. To Lorna's amaze the reptile's tongue darted out and licked the brown drippings from its neck. Often she had seen big forest snakes lapping milk left in a cup or saucer outside a tent or shanty door.

Almost before she could move or call out to Villiers the python had begun to stretch its great length in sudden languor. Its throat expanded as it fell limply forward and lay motionless across the doorway.

A long-drawn sigh came from the young minister.

"Please don't let the dog kill it," he begged earnestly. "It was unable to escape—never had a fighting chance."

From the distant woods came the sounds of rushing feet, the voices of natives calling to each other. The faint starlight showed a close-wedged mass of figures charging across the open in the direction of the square. The thud of their feet on the soft soil was like the breaking of surf on a beach.

"Quick, go!" came from the young minister. "They will spare no living thing now!"

Lorna turned the head of the dog in line with the oncoming horde. "At 'em, Gyp!" she shouted. "They're just a crowd of bananas!" she added, with desperate courage. "Not one of them has the kick of a rabbit."

The dog leaped from her hold and shot straight for the centre of the howling line of natives. The devil-lantern swinging from its collar seemed to dance and whirl over the ground, a nightmare of colour with two vampire slits of flame for eyes. The squad broke in a pandemonium of shrieks and grunts. Back to the dark scrub they scattered, with the blazing head of the vampire racing madly on their flanks.

Lorna whistled loudly once, twice, before the dog headed back reluctantly. Satisfied that the crowd of villagers would not recover the shock of the lantern's second appearance for a while, Lorna entered the house of the witch-doctor hurriedly. Villiers was resting on his side. She stooped over him tenderly.

"I've got a boat on the river. Can you manage to crawl if I help you?" she begged. "It isn't far."

He struggled to his elbow desperately, rested a moment, and would have fallen back if her arm had not steadied him. The ghost of a grin played on his boyish lips.

"Running away from trouble isn't a parson's job," he protested faintly. "I'd sooner play the game and stick it out."

"Of course you would," Lorna agreed in cheerful desperation. "Personally I'd prefer to use a machine-gun on some of these head-snatchers. Anyway, you'll have to get well before you can tackle this crowd. So come along."

The young minister struggled to his knees, gasping dizzily as he strove to reach the doorway.

Inch by inch they fought their way to the open, the dog bristling again at contact with the torpid python stretched across the exit. The night air came sweet as wine from the hills to the boy who had lain in the foetid atmosphere of Kaga's house. The deep draughts from the mountains were as new life. Lorna wound her big silk scarf under his chest to relieve the strain as he crawled over the rough ground. Foot by foot they struggled through the cane grass, every ounce of strength in her young limbs centred on the task of reaching the boat.

A dozen times he lay still and begged her to leave him. In response Lorna began to roll him gently until the slope of the riverbank made the task easier. She had reserved her strength for the last tussle of getting him on board.

Here was the boat, and here was the limp, exhausted figure of the boy who wanted to stay behind. The bristling throat, the soft whines of the wolfhound told her that the very undergrowth was strewn with death. The smothered yells from the forest informed her that the men of Merke had grown aware of the trick she had played with the lantern.

Drawing the edge of the skiff down to the level of the bank, she uttered the only prayer she had ever known. "Oh, Lord, Father, we're in a fix! Help us this once to get home."

She pulled, dragged, and rolled the half-fainting young minister over the gunwale. He collapsed in a heap beside the biscuit tin in the thwarts. The Alsatian police dog whirled back to the bank, his great fangs baying the unseen shapes that were now moving through the grass.

"Come back, boy!" Lorna shouted, dropping the oars into place. The dog returned sullenly at her command, sprang aboard as the skiff moved downstream. The black shadows of the mangroves engulfed the tiny boat as Lorna switched off the torch inside the devil-lantern.


JIM CROYDON had hunted all the day for Lorna. The missing skiff explained little or nothing. With his hurricane lamp and rifle he made his way along the river track in the direction of Merke. He had heard from Dave Saunders the account of Noel Villiers's plight in the village of Merke. It was almost certain, he argued, that his foolish and impulsive daughter had gone alone to the house of the witch-doctor.

Past midnight, he detected the far-away voices of natives along the river-bank, the voices of warriors running in his direction. Jim was old, and his joints cried out against the dripping slime from the mangroves. But the rifle in his hand was young and spoke the only language that ever appealed to a charging buffalo or a hunter of human heads. The soft yelp of a dog reached him out in midstream. Dimly he discerned the outline of a boat drifting idly under the bank ferns and creepers.

"That you, Lorna?" he called out. "It's your dad speakin'."

The police dog answered from the stern of the skiff with a low, sobbing whine. Old Jim Croydon took his chance with the alligators as he waded out and clambered into the drifting vessel. Two figures lay huddled in the thwarts. Croydon bent over his daughter, his shaking hand pressing near her heart. She stirred quickly at the touch of his fingers, then lay back in his arms, breathing with difficulty.

"See if he's alive, Dad. They chased us good and hard over every mile. I wish I'd had your gun!"


STRANGELY enough, this episode was the turning point in Jim's fortunes. With the young minister on his way to recovery, in the south room of the store overlooking the beach, the new gold rush began. The crowds poured in from Mombare and Samarai.

At the crazy pier-head a small schooner was unloading stores. Ching Lee and Tung War stood near to count the cases of eggs packed in lime that had just arrived. Noel Villiers was seated near the open window overlooking the beach. Lorna was planting Australian violets and mignonette beneath the casement, the flower's so often mentioned by Noel's mother in her letters to him.

From where he sat the young minister had a good view of Lorna, where the sun seemed to flame in the tawny red of her hair. Day after day he had watched her movements about the magnolia- sheltered patch of garden, wondering vaguely at the beauty and strength of her slim, boyish figure, so vital and lithe, with a mouth like a crushed mulberry. But always there were the soft, mutinous eyes and chin, the wild, slightly heavy-scented flower of the north Australian lands. He raised himself slightly and pointed to the schooner.

"See how those two Chinese take care of themselves. Eggs by the hundred! When the wet season comes and our people are tearing open cans of bully-beef, or eating damper, these good fellows can smile over their fried eggs and bacon," he added, with a subhumorous twinkle.

"Eggs!" Lorna's lithe young body straightened instantly over the flower-bed. "Why, I counted two million shells round their old hut the other day." A tiny frown lined her brow. "Why, two men couldn't eat all those eggs, if they'd begun frying them about the time of Henry the Eighth. Maybe," she added, meeting Villiers' smiling eyes, "you can tell me how many million eggs a healthy man ought to eat in the wet season."

Before he could reply she had scampered across the beach to where the cases of lime-packed eggs stood at the jetty-end. The backs of both Chinamen were turned to her as they bent over their task of nailing up the broken sides of the cases. They worked feverishly at the nailing-up, muttering to each other at the rough methods employed by the schooner hands in discharging cargoes.

Deftly and silently Lorna extracted a couple of eggs from one of the open cases and hurried back to the store. In the bat of an eye the Chinamen detected what had happened. Like leopards they sprang after her, screaming for her to stop. Lorna waited for them to approach, the lines about her soft mouth tightening strangely as she cast one of the eggs full at the oncoming Ching Lee.

It struck his breast. Instantly a sticky brown substance ran down his white jacket. The eyes of the Chinaman bulged in terror as he strove for one frantic moment to hide the dark mass with his wide sleeve. Lorna laughed bitterly as she turned to the young clergyman, who was now hastening to her side.

"The stuff you threw at the big snake, Noel," she told him in her pent-up anger. "They run it into empty shells and broadcast it throughout the islands."

The two Chinamen hurried back to the beach at the moment the new police launch from Mombare was entering the bay. Villiers sighed as he caught her hands gently. There were tears on her cheek. The horror of her recent experience with opium in the house of Kaga, at Merke, had been recalled.

"Hush, dear," he whispered tenderly. "Let the police handle this matter now. After all, the fates have been very kind to us."

When Jim Croydon dashed to the verandah to discover the cause of the shouting he saw Lorna's cheek resting against the tall shoulder of the convalescent Villiers.

"Blamed if I didn't guess as much," he growled, retiring unobserved to the store.

And for once in a while old Jim guessed right.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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