NOBODY was hurt so far as Gerald Allison could see. He was slowly recovering from a smashing blow in the centre of his forehead, blood was flowing freely from a cut over the left eye. Half-a-dozen dim figures with swinging lanterns moved up and down the line. When the thousand and one stars dancing before his eyes twinkled out one by one Allison joined them.
"It's all right, sir," the guard said, "at least nobody is hurt. We were taking the curve very slowly, luckily for us. Engine ran into a tree that had fallen across the metals. The coupling rod's broken. Three or four hours before we get another engine, perhaps."
Allison was glad to find it was no worse. Still the delay was irritating enough. A clock somewhere behind the velvet blackness of the night struck nine. It was very dark, too, for the cutting on the other side was shaded by trees. There was no help for it now but to go back to the carriage and wait with what patience one could. And Allison was a restless mortal at the best.
"Whereabouts are we?" he demanded of the guard. "I expect you know this line pretty well. Are we anywhere near a place called Courthope?"
"Sir Walter Ramsden's place," the guard said thoughtfully. "Not much over two miles, sir, if you keep to the fields. I'll come to the end of the cutting and put you in the right way, sir."
Allison wanted nothing better. Here was a stroke of fortune hardly to be expected in the circumstances. It was nothing to Allison that he had never seen Sir Walter in his life; it did not seem to him in the least unconventional to turn up in a more or less dilapidated condition at a strange gentleman's house and demand his instant and best hospitality. These things are a matter of course in the Colonies, and Allison was quite new to England. His own people had done business with Ramsden's firm, and what more was needed.
"That's very good of you," he said. "I'll just step back and get my kit-bag first. As all the rest of my luggage is labelled, I'll leave that to take cure of itself."
He returned to the head of the cutting presently, kit-bag in hand. All the passengers in the train were back in their carriages now, resigned to the inevitable. After all, the coaches were snug and warm, and the autumn night with its touch of frost bit shrewdly. There was no moon, but the misty night was full of stars.
"You can't very well miss it, sir," the guard said in conclusion. "Keep to the path along the big wood, and bear to the left. You'll come in time to a pair of iron gates, which is the old drive up to the house. Follow this again till you reach a big clump of beeches, and take the bridle path. Only be careful of the stone quarry on the left."
Allison nodded carelessly enough. A man absolutely at home on the veldt or in the bush makes little of a two mile walk across English meadows. As a matter of fact, Allison was looking forward to it with enjoyment. The cool, bracing air raised his spirits, the racking pain in his head was passing away. He could smell the sweet herbage of the hedgerows, the frosty grass crackled under his feet.
Another twenty minutes now and the journey would be over. Here were the iron gates with the long grass beyond them. There was the clump of beeches with the bridle path sloping downwards. It seemed to Allison that he could see the gleam of lights behind the trees. As he stepped into the bridle path something rose under his feet with a whirr and a cackle, a great blundering cock pheasant went drumming and whistling down the drive. It was so startling and unexpected that Allison stepped back a pace or two. His heels seemed to be balancing on nothing, the solid earth had turned to paper.
Down, down he went, sliding at first, clutching desperately the tangle of briar and bramble, his head quite clear, his soul not at all afraid. He knew exactly what had happened, the warning of the guard came back with vivid force. He had fallen into the quarry. Even as he pitched he still clung to his black kit-bag.
It was some little time before he was in a position to accurately grasp the true state of affairs. An any rate, there were no bones broken, and apparently nothing wrong internally, only Allison was feeling very giddy and sick and his knees were trembling. It seemed to his philosophic mind that he was destined to spend the night here. The quarry was very dark; to attempt to scale those granite walls was not to be thought of without a guide. There was a flask of brandy in the kit-bag, with a suit of evening clothes and etceteras besides. If the worst came to the worst the clothing could be transformed into a bed.
Allison unceremoniously turned everything out, and tossed the bag away. He took a hearty pull at the flask, and felt all the better for it. There was only one thing now, and that was to wait till daylight. The bracken down there was dry and warm. . . .
Allison sat up alert and listening. His trained ear had caught the sound of footsteps. The steps were dragging and cautious, like those of some skulking enemy. A poacher perhaps, or some other kind of marauder. The steps were coming nearer now; evidently the intruder knew his ground. Then between the brambles and the bracken flashed the light of a lantern. Instinctively Allison crouched closer. A little way from him his bag lay in an open space, and the Colonial hoped that it would not betray him. It needed no voice to tell him that the man with the lantern was up to no good. A moment later and he was at the bottom of the quarry.
Allison could see his face now that he had placed the lantern on the ground. It was not a prepossessing face—indeed, it was a very repellent one. Yet something bearing the faintest resemblance to a smile crossed the sullen features as the man's eyes rested on the bag.
"So Joe is here!" he muttered. "Began to think he'd funked it. Pity he can't trust anybody but himself. That's his bag, o' course. I hope he won't be long. I'm late as it is."
The stranger pulled out a short clay pipe and began to smoke. He sat there for a few minutes listening alertly all the time. He did not appear to be altogether at his ease. Presently a partridge called in the wood above and the man whistled softly.
"All right," came a hoarse voice from the head of the quarry. "Show me the least suspicion of a light. Hurry up."
A long lane of light flashed up the side of the granite walls showing a zigzag path fringed with bushes. Down this the second man came with a small sack on his shoulder. His countenance was no more prepossessing than that of his ally, and Allison crouched closer still. These men were no poachers, the Colonial decided. He felt sure of it as he heard the contents of the sack tinkle into his kit-bag. His hand quietly slipped to his hip pocket only to find nothing there. He had forgotten that revolvers are not necessities in England.
"Got the whole bloomin' lot," the newcomer chuckled. "They was all in the billiard room, and the servants 'aving 'igh jinks in the 'all. The softest job I ever touched. But there's nothing to be gained by stayin' 'ere. Let's get back to the dog-cart. What's that?"
The distant barking of a dog, a shout or two, the clattering of a horse's hoofs in a road hard by. Then sticks began to snap, there was a rustle as of a heavy body in the brushwood. The man with the sack rose to his feet and swore furiously.
"Come along," he cried. "No time to lose. They've found it out, and the dogs are in full cry. Bring the bag."
The other stretched out his hand for the bag, but Allison was there before him. His blood was up and tingling now.
"NO, you don't," he said curtly. "Here, you fellows, I've got 'em."
Just for a moment it was touch and go with Allison. The odds were heavy, but he did not hesitate. He wrenched at the bag and threw it over his shoulder. He stood up in all the pride of his five feet eleven of wire and whipcord before the astonished gaze of the burglars. Surely one man by himself could never have dared to face them like this. And all the time the tramp of feet overhead was getting louder. With a snarl and an oath the leader turned and fled, followed by his companion. They did not appear to need anybody to show them the way.
"Lucky I was here," Allison muttered. "Glad they left the lantern, too. I shall sleep comfortably in a bed after all."
With the aid of the lantern Allison replaced his scattered garments in the bag. He did not wait to see what was underneath them. All he wanted now was to get away from the quarry and find quarters for the night. It was an easy matter to reach high ground now that he had the lantern in his hand, though Allison could see the peril of the attempt without such fortuitous assistance. He could see the lights gleaming in the house beyond the trees now, and knew that he was safe. He was rather pleased than otherwise with his adventure.
Suddenly round a twist in the lane he blundered into an excited group of men, accompanied by many dogs. The chattering of voices and the clamor of the dogs almost deafened him. Then rude hands were laid upon him, and he found himself being dragged in the direction of the house. A fat butler-looking person stood behind with a revolver.
"My good people," Allison expostulated. "Easy, easy! The men you are looking for are far away by this time."
"You tell that to Sir Walter," the man with the revolver sneered. "Perhaps you'll get him to believe you. Bring him along, lads."
Allison submitted philosophically to the inevitable. On the whole he was disposed to be amused. He found himself presently in a brilliantly lighted hall, surrounded by men and women in evening dress. First and foremost was a pompous little man with a red face and arbitrary manners.
"I presume you are Sir Walter Ramsden," Allison said. "Your people seem to have mistaken me for a burglar. To begin with, perhaps I had better explain how I came to be here."
Sir Walter listened with visible impatience. His keen, hard face expressed incredulity. He had not made his money in the City by taking the word of every plausible scamp who came along, and he said so. Allison felt the hot blood mounting to his face. He would have liked to assault the smug police officer standing behind Sir Walter.
"I assure you I have given my proper name and description," he said.
"Possibly, sir; possibly," Sir Walter said stiffly. "Of course, I shall be quite ready to make a handsome apology if needs be, but I should be better pleased to see you turn out the contents of your kit-bag."
Allison fairly started. He had no desire to spend the night in the village lock-up, though the restoration of his good name was only a matter time. And it was useless for him now to finish his story. Nobody could possibly believe him. Moreover, he was conscious of the sorry figure he must be making in the eyes of Sir Walter's guests. He caught sight of his bruised face and inflamed eye in a mirror opposite. He might really have been the burglar taken red-handed. As yet he had said nothing of his fall into the quarry.
"Really, sir, you are asking a great deal," he protested. Once that fatal bag was turned out his exit from the house would be speedy and humiliating. "You will never forgive yourself when you discover that——"
"I should never forgive myself if I lose the opportunity of getting my plate and jewels back," Sir Walter said pointedly. "You may be telling the truth, and, on the other hand, you may not. And you don't look like the kind of guest who generally stays in houses like this."
Allison was fain to admit the justice of the speech. Had the circumstances been reversed, he would probably have taken a similar view. He looked about him, in the faint hope of seeing somebody he knew there, for Sir Walter possessed a large circle of Colonial acquaintances. Then Allison's heart leapt joyfully as a girl in white, a pretty girl with a pleasant smile, came eagerly into the hall.
"Miss Egerton," he cried. "This is most fortunate. Surely you remember me and your visit to Parramatta a year ago? Gerald Allison, you know. I have a letter to your——"
"Why, of course," the girl cried. "But what have you been doing to yourself? So you are the burglar I have just been hearing about. Sir Walter, this is ridiculous. You really don't mean to say that you are going to ask Mr. Allison to turn out his bag."
Sir Walter weakened palpably. And Miss Egerton's father was a valuable client of his, to say nothing of her being an heiress in her own right.
"Of course, if you know the gentleman," he muttered. "Mr. Allison's father is a gentleman that I have the highest respect for. Clear all those people out there, Symonds; let them go on with the search. And take Mr. Allison to a bedroom where he can wash and change. And keep an eye on him, Symonds"—he added sotto voce—"for I am by no means satisfied even yet."
Half an hour later and Allison was seated in a cosy corner of the hall talking gravely to Miss Egerton. He did not tell her yet that he had come to England almost expressly to see her. Doubtless that information would be afforded all in good time. But it was easy to see that Allison's fair companion had something heavy on her mind.
"I believe you are still doubtful about me," he said. "Come do you really think that I have turned burglar? You are shielding me out of consideration for my family. You think I know where the swag is?"
"I am certain of it," Miss Egerton replied. "I—I did not interfere till I was obliged. But when you started so guiltily——"
"My dear Miss Egerton, I had to. Consider my position. Take my unfortunate personal appearance only as evidence against me. And you tell me that it is almost a crime in England to drop into the houses of one's acquaintances in this way. Suppose my kit-bag had been forcibly taken from me and searched. What do you suppose that Sir Walter would have found there, eh?"
Miss Egerton said nothing, but her eyes spoke.
"Precisely. The jewels and plate would have been found there; in fact they are there at the present moment. Without an ally in the house nobody would have dreamt of accepting my story. I should have bluffed it out, for I had no fancy for the village lock-up even for a night. But by great good fortune you were here, and you saved me. And now if you will let me tell you the whole story I will try and convince you that I am still an honest man and worthy of your—er,—friendship. And we were very friendly a year ago, weren't we, Mabel. And it was like this——"
"How could I have been so foolish!" the girl said presently, blushing and smiling as Allison came to the end of his story. "And now that everything is explained in so satisfactory a manner, let us go and repeat the story to Sir Walter, who is fussing and fuming in the library."
Sir Walter's severe expression gradually faded away. He rubbed his hands with delight as he presently glanced at his recovered treasures. He was beaming with amiability now; he smote Allison on the back.
"All the same," he chuckled. "I was quite right in my suspicions, now, wasn't I? My dear boy, how can I thank you for your pluck and cool common sense?"
"And how can you forgive me for my silly suspicions?" Miss Egerton asked Allison a little later on when they were alone together again. "Don't you think I am altogether too horrid?"
But that wasn't the word that Allison used. It had quite a different sound.