If Alan Dundas had forgotten his world, his world had by no means forgotten him. A man in a comparatively small community cannot entirely disappear from it without exciting comment. In the club at Glen Cairn men talked, and asked questions that were not answered. Over afternoon teacups tongues wagged and heads nodded. Hector Bryce was uneasy, but kept his thoughts to himself, even from Mistress Doris. A girl who went amongst her friends giving no sign carried a sore and sad heart with her. Why, she thought, was Alan behaving so queerly? Before that night when they had looked into one another’s eyes in the moment of danger no week passed that did not bring its meeting. Since then he had gone out of her life. Why? Why? Why? The question racked her day and night. True to him even in her thoughts, she would not believe that the man who had held her hand that night, and spoken her name so, had done it lightly and then ridden away. She felt that it was no small thing that had come between them, but she felt she could only wait until he gave a sign. That he would come to her again she would not let herself doubt.
Rickardson, who was wasting High Court abilities in a country town, sat in the club and smoked placidly. To him entered George MacArthur. Rickardson gave no greeting to the newcomer beyond pushing a chair over to him with his foot. MacArthur pressed the bell, and while the steward brought the necessary bottles he stared gloomily at the fire, while Rickardson stared at him. The steward departed. MacArthur sipped the whisky, and turned abruptly to his friend. “I’m damned if I know what to make of it!” Then he turned back to the fire again.
Rickardson took his pipe out of his mouth and spoke. “You went out there, George?”
“Yes,” absently, “I went out.” There was a long silence. Then he went on. “This is just between ourselves, Rick. He hasn’t pruned a single vine, much less put a plough onto the place. The house was open, and the dogcart was in the shed. Billy B.B. was in the paddock, and I’m ready to swear that Dundas was about the place somewhere. I raised no end of a row, but that was all I did raise. Never saw a vestige of him. Now what the deuce does it mean?”
Rickardson tapped the ashes from his pipe into his hand, and uttered one brief word, “Skirt.”
MacArthur snorted. “Skirt! Rot! You’re one-eyed on that idea, Rick. I hate this damned gossiping, and you’re about the only one I’d open out to about Dun. But I’ve a pretty fair idea that Mrs. Bryce was working Dun for Miss Seymour, and Dun wasn’t unwilling. Now, I know he hasn’t been near Seymour’s for months. I got that from Seymour himself. Now who else could there be? McCarthy’s women are the nearest to him, two miles away, and I’d stake my life Dun isn’t one of that sort. He’s got some pretty high-falutin’ notions about women.”
“Did you try Barry?” asked the lawyer presently.
“Humph! I did!” answered the other with a chuckle. “You know Dick. He told me nothing, with strictly professional politeness. Got nothing there, though the wily old beggar knows things, I’ll swear. I didn’t want to risk being told to mind my own dashed business. What about Bryce?”
“Bryce knows about as much as we do. That yarn about the study was all tosh. He was trying to pump me the other day, so I bluffed I was in the know, and said Dun was doing well. I expect he is, or Barry would come to light with something.”
“Well,” said MacArthur, in the end, “I suppose if Dun wanted to let us in he would, so we had better sit tight. Only I hate to think that he was in a hole and we were not on hand to help.”
“Same here,” replied Rickardson. “But, Mac, I’m prepared to bet a cigar to a brick house that when it comes out ‘it’ will be a woman of sorts.”
Barry was neither blind nor deaf to what was going on. That “Cootamundra,” usually one of the best-worked properties in the district, had been left to its own devices was a matter of small moment to Alan, he knew. He realised that, as things stood, Alan’s future was elsewhere. But until he would be able to come into the open and show his hand, his present unusual existence was at least open to comment. To leave a valuable vineyard unpruned and unploughed to the end of August was inviting comment on his sobriety or his sanity. MacArthur was not the only one who had noticed. So Barry took counsel with himself, and one evening, as they sat smoking before his departure, he broke into his friend’s reverie: “Dun, when were you in Glen Cairn last?”
Alan came to himself with a start. “Blessed if I know, Dick. It’s so long ago that I’ve almost forgotten. Eight or ten weeks. Storekeeper sends out everything I want — no need to go in. Think of piffling about at the club or anywhere else, when there is what you and I know here.”
“Just so, Dun. I know why you are lying low, but others don’t. People are talking.”
Alan looked across at his friend in mild surprise. “Talking? How? What are they saying?”
“Nothing to me. They know better. But think how it looks, Dun. You were not an inconspicuous figure in our little crowd. Suddenly, and without any apparent cause, you disappear. People know you are still here. They know that there has not been a stroke of work done on the place since vintage. Then they know I’m here a good deal. Think how it looks from the outside.”
Alan frowned thoughtfully. “Come to think of it, it must start them guessing a bit.” He stood up and took a note from his mantelpiece and handed it to Barry. “I found that pinned to the door the other day.”
This is what Dick read pencilled on a leaf torn from a pocket-book:— “Dear Dun, — Is it wine or woman? Rickardson and I are desolate. Where the devil and why the devil are you hiding? Come back, and all will be forgiven. — G. MacArthur.”
Barry smiled as he read. “He tried to pump me a little while ago. I was sorry to turn him down, because he really seemed concerned.”
“Good sort, old Mac. Anyhow, what am I to do?”
“Better show up a little, I think. It won’t do any harm.”
Dundas filled his pipe thoughtfully before he spoke. “To tell the truth, Dick, I’m rather afraid to leave. Suppose any one came along while I was away?” Then, after a pause: “There is something I haven’t told you about. Not that there was any need to keep quiet about it. Earani has been up here.”
“Great Scott! When?” said Barry, sitting up.
“Two nights ago, and again last night. I suppose — well, to tell the truth, although I was very keen on having her up here at first, latterly I’ve tried to put her off. You see Dick, after coming from the galleries and her surroundings, this place looks pretty mean, and I thought she might not understand. I needn’t have worried, and I ought to have known that she would be better than that sort of thing. She took my quarters as a matter of course, and with her usual practical curiosity. She was rather struck on my little shanty. I was foolish enough to try to explain.” He paused and smiled reminiscently.
“What’s the joke, Dun?”
“Well, she fired a lost world proverb into me and shut me up. Here it is: ‘A man judged justly is judged naked,’ and, Dick, my boy, I’ve heard a good many proverbs with less truth in them.”
“By jove, Dun, I wish I had been here. Did you expect her?”
“No; that is not the least interesting part of it. Tell you what. I’ve a suspicion, without a single bit of evidence to support it, that the night before last was not her first appearance.”
“What happened?” Dick was all interest.
“Well, it was about ten. I’ve lost touch with my books lately, and I came out to have a wander round before turning in. It settles me down a bit. It was a stunning night, you remember. Bright moonlight. I’d been across the paddocks to the river, and when I came back to the house she was standing just between it and the shed.” He paused and went on thoughtfully. “I couldn’t believe my eyes until she hailed me. Dick, you should have seen her standing there in the moonlight, bare-headed, and with her white gown clinging round her. Visions! I thought at first it couldn’t be real. She was as jolly as a school girl at having caught me on the hop. Nothing would satisfy her but to see how I live. So I damned conventions, and she came in here. Now what do you think she did first?”
Barry shook his head. “You can search me, Dun. Nothing usual, I’ll swear.”
“Well, she took one glance round the room, and her eyes lighted on my picture of Napoleon up there,” and he waved his pipe in the direction of Delaroche’s immortal portrait. “Then she went over to it as if pulled by a magnet. When she turned back her eyes were fairly flashing. She caught me by the arm, and, by Jove! I had never before seen her show so much emotion. ‘Alan, Alan, tell me! Does he live? What is he? How is he named? He is the man I want. Tell me! Tell me!’ By Jove, Dick, she was disappointed when I told her he had gone nearly one hundred years. ‘Ah, I have come one hundred years too late, Alan. Nature breeds his kind once in a thousand years, and I have missed him. With me to plan and with him to do my bidding — aye, and he would have done it — my task here would have been very easy.’ Queer, wasn’t it?”
“Not very, when you come to think of it. Still, it’s just as well Napoleon is under the marble at the Invalides. I don’t like to think of those two running the universe. I’ll admit, though, that their proceedings would probably be a cure for ennui. At the same time,” he went on, “I think that Earani and Napoleon combination would be better than the prospective Earani and Andax partnership. Dun, the more I think of it the less I like it. Has it ever occurred to you that we might do worse than hand the matter over to the authorities?”
Barry spoke hesitatingly, and half-expected an outburst from Dundas. Instead, however, Alan smoked on for some time before answering. “Dick, it’s no use. I’ve reasoned the whole thing out. I won’t hear of it. For one thing, we have passed our word to Earani, and nothing will induce me to break it. She trusts me absolutely, and I’m going to be worth that confidence. Apart from that, however, whom are we to inform? State or Federal Government? Think of letting a crowd of politicians in. The crowd who are in office now, for instance. The damned fools would appoint a Royal Commission to deal with the matter. Where would I stand with the place overrun with a horde of infernal carpet-baggers and newspaper men? Or think of Earani being gushed over by a mob of confounded society women. No! I will not hear of it. There is only one who has a right to say, and that one is Earani herself.”
Dick shrugged his shoulders. “As you please, Dun. You have the right to decide. I’ll not refer to it again. You say you had another visit last night.”
Dundas smiled. “Aye, Dick. We walked down to the river. It must seem strange to her. When Earnani last saw this place it was a plateau, with a river running round its edge south to the sea through hilly country. Now the river runs north, and so far as I can make out, her river must have followed the alluvial lead where the Golden Edge group of mines is working. Think, Dick, the bed of her river is eighteen hundred feet below the surface of the ground, and the hilly country is a level plain. Then again, where the great sphere is buried now it stood over six hundred feet above the surface then. She tells me that it is set in a solid cube of its own material over a thousand feet each way. Jove! But it must have been a pretty conspicuous object in the landscape in those days.”
Barry nodded. “No wonder she was surprised in that first interview when you told her you didn’t know that her residence was a sphere. What else?”
“Oh! nothing much,” was the somewhat evasive reply, and Barry, wise in his generation, forebore to press the question, but turned again to his former proposition. “Anyhow, Dun, I don’t think there would be much risk in your taking a day off and showing up at the club. I don’t think anything would be likely to happen to Earani.”
“Quite so. I’m sure there would be no danger for Earani. But I’m not so sure about the safety of the intruder, or at any rate of the effect Earani might have on a visitor. Suppose, for instance, John Harvey Pook turned up while I was away. You can imagine the trend of thoughts. Then, again, suppose a swaggie put in an appearance, and turned nasty, finding he had only a woman to deal with?”
“Well,” replied Barry, “I’d back Earani to take care of herself.”
“Right, but I don’t fancy having to explain away a dead swaggie. Between ourselves, Dick, Earani has on occasion hinted at the value of a certain kind of human life as being less than nothing. I’ve explained our present-day view of the matter pretty clearly, but all the same, I think she looks on our regard for the sanctity of human life as a weak kind of sentimentalism.”
Barry nodded. “It would be rather awkward. Still, you can tell her you wish to go to town, and ask her not to show up during your absence. However, I don’t want to push in my oar, Dun, only I thought I’d let you know how the wind is blowing.”
Alan thought the matter over long after Barry had left him. He paced the drive before the house in the hope that he would gain inspiration from a visit from his Lady of Dreams, but though he waited long his hopes were unrewarded.
However, next day Dundas told Earani that there were reasons why he should leave her to herself occasionally, so that he might attend to his affairs away from the vineyard. Whereat she showed such sweet contrition at what she called her selfishness in keeping him so much with her, that Alan felt inclined to refuse to take the liberty she offered so freely and fully. He told her of his fears of intruders, and she smilingly promised not to face the light of day during his absence unless with his permission. Indeed, it was her own suggestion that he should lock the shed door while he would be away.
So next day Billy was requisitioned, none the more tractable from his long holiday, to take the dogcart and the dogcart’s owner to Glen Cairn. Alan greeted those whom he met with the casual greeting of every day, as though a three or four month’s absence were a matter not worthy of comment. He dropped in on Rickardson at his office, and badgered the lawyer into breaking his own rules, and strolling down to the club. There they flushed MacArthur from a couch, where he was taking forty winks. MacArthur, taking his cue from Rickardson asked no questions, too pleased to see Dundas come to light to care about causes. They told him of Mac’s latest war with John Harvey Pook. Pook had indiscreetly made an unmistakable reference to MacArthur from the pulpit. The town hummed with joy. Mac waited his time, and Pook gave him the chance. The vicar, puffed up with earthly pride, had attached a brass nameplate to his gate, bearing the legend “The Gums,” as if the whole town did not know the vicarage. Then Mac stepped in, and bought the adjoining house, without a word to anyone. A week later on the gate adjoining that of the vicarage appeared an identical brass plate bearing the legend “The Teeth.” John Harvey Pook hauled down his colours and his plate, and the town hummed again.
Afterwards Alan and MacArthur played a hundred up, and Rickardson criticised cheerfully and caustically, and the two players retaliated by charging the table up to his account. Then, as the afternoon was closing, they strolled across to the tennis courts, where Alan was promptly captured by Doris Bryce, and carefully placed on the feminine rack. Doris flattered herself she was wily and diplomatic, and she probed scientifically for information. Alan flattered himself he was more wily and more diplomatic. The result of the contest was somewhat of a draw. Doris obtained nothing that could satisfy her curiosity, but Alan found himself cornered, so that he was obliged to promise to play in a tournament on the following Saturday. He would gladly have avoided the engagement, but it would have taken a more clever man than he to do it gracefully. Doris was a little nettled at her failure to solve the mystery of Alan’s disappearance, and promised herself to deal more fully with her victim at her leisure. She felt he owed an explanation to herself in the first place, and also to Marian Seymour. Moreover, she determined that Alan should be picked to play with Marian in the tournament, and that both should spend the evening at the bank afterwards. Who was this man, Alan Dundas, that he should turn aside from the eminently desirable fate that she had in store for him?
MacArthur had sat listening with mischievous amusement to the verbal duel between the two, and had, with malice aforethought, given deliberate assistance to Mistress Doris in cornering Alan for the tournament. Inwardly Alan called him anything but blessed, and finally resigned himself to what he now regarded as a wasted afternoon, for all time that was not spent in the society of Earani he looked upon as so long unlived. He had grudged his present visit to Glen Cairn, and more so he grudged the prospective one. In the end he hailed with pleasure the advent of Barry, who passed on his way from the hospital, and gave Dundas the excuse for taking his leave.
As the two men strolled away from the courts, Alan turned to Barry. “Dick, what’s happened? You look elated about something.”
“Lord forgive me, Alan, but I ought to look jolly well ashamed of myself, and I’m not. I’ve been guilty of rank professional misconduct. I’ve risked an act of manslaughter, morally at any rate, and I’ve got Walton into a condition of mental collapse. The worst of it is that I couldn’t confess to Walton even if I were allowed to.”
“Pretty good record for one day, Dicky. How did you do it all?”
“Well, you remember the yabber I had with Earani yesterday afternoon?”
“I remember you were discussing some of your usual objectionable subjects with her. The details were beyond me.”
“Humph! Well, I discussed that particular subject because we had a case in the hospital. Characteristic and very clearly defined. Absolutely hopeless — at least, I said so, and I never heard of its yielding to treatment.”
Alan laughed. “I remember that part of it, and Earani’s mild contradiction of your statement. I got lost afterwards in the blaze of verbal fireworks that you both exhibited.”
“Dun, do you notice that when she has absolutely pulverised one in an argument, Earani doesn’t gloat? It’s a most unfeminine characteristic.”
Alan nodded. “I never argue with her now on matters of fact; it’s no use; she is always right. What about your hopeless case?”
“Just this. She gave me a fluid of some sort, and told me to inject it, and guaranteed that so long as the patient were not dead, her treatment would wipe out the disease in six hours. She holds that where the organs are not actually destroyed no disease should be fatal.”
“Just this, Dun; and this is where the professional misconduct comes in. The woman is Walton’s patient. I slipped into the hospital this morning. Got the nurse out of the way and injected the stuff. Remember, I’ve not the faintest idea what it was I used, so if she had died I would have been morally guilty of her death. Though, mind you, Dun, she was moribund when I did it, and to all appearances had about two or three hours to live. Still, there would be the devil of a row if it were known.
“When I came in this evening I found Walton half off his head with bewilderment. The woman took a turn about ten, and Jove! when I left her half an hour ago, although she was weak and very low with what she’d been through, there was absolutely no indication of the disease. Walton doesn’t know whether we were wrong in our diagnosis (and I’m absolutely sure we were not), or whether he has performed a miracle. He’s anxious to report the case, and yet he’s afraid to. You see, if he reports a cure he won’t be believed, or he’ll be asked to do it again, or, what is more likely, they’ll say he is mistaken in his facts.”
Alan chuckled. “Hard luck for Walton. Still, judging by results only, I don’t think you have anything to fret about.”
They had stopped at Barry’s gate, and Alan refused his friend’s invitation to go in. “Just as you say, Dun, I’m not fretting, and I ought to be. Tell that worker of miracles I’ll be out to-morrow to see her. I’ve several thousand questions to ask her. I’m glad you have been seen in public again. Till to-morrow!” and Alan turned away to the club, where he picked up Billy B.B. and sped homeward, feeling satisfied that he had temporarily suppressed the current gossip.
Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925),
[Editor: Changed “and were not on hand to help” to “and we were not on hand to help”; “keep quite about it” to “keep quiet about it”. Removed a quotation mark from after “You know Dick” and “Here it is:”. Added a quotation mark after “a woman of sorts.”. Removed the long space after “guessing a bit.”. Added a full stop after “above the surface then”.]