― 142 ―

Chapter XV

BILL turned in the doorway to wave a cheerful farewell to someone in the bar, then he barged up the broad staircase. The hotel was full to overflowing; the wide upstairs veranda revealed a vista of close-packed rows of beds like an overcrowded hospital ward. A few strangers leaned over the veranda rail, apparently immersed in a study of the scattered lights of the town, but the man Bill wanted was not among them and he swung on his heel and started to investigate the doors opening on the long, dimly-lighted passage. What was the number of his room? It should be somewhere hereabouts but he could not be quite sure. He was even less positive by the time he reached the end of the corridor, but he brightened as a possible solution struck him. He faced down the long rows of uncommunicative doorways and bawled: “Hi! Mac!”

Half a dozen doors swung open and as many heads stuck out. Bill rubbed the back of his neck ruminatively and murmured, “Cripes! Is this Longreach or Edinburgh?”

Then a familiar voice hailed him resignedly. “Here you are, Bill!”

Mac looked sharply at him as he plumped on the bed opposite. Bill had had a few drinks—just enough

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to make him talkative—but that was not the underlying cause of his elation. He ventured a leading question. “Well … how did you get on with the Ford?”

Bill roused himself and leaned forward with enthusiasm sparkling in his eyes. “Get on? I got on and stopped on! Rode her to a standstill!”

Mac eyed him dubiously. “How many gates did you hit?”

“Oh, one or two.… Didn't hurt Lizzie, though! I clean forgot all about brakes. Sat back and took a grip of her that'd steady a draught-horse … and the damn thing kept on going. Good thing the bloke from the garage was with me!” He chuckled reminiscently. “I gave 'em the ride of their lives coming back!”

“Who else was with you?”

“Oh, I took Marie—the fair-haired filly from down the street. The one you don't like.”

“Didn't she know you couldn't drive?”

“She never asked. Only too glad to come for a ride. Cripes … and I clean forgot to take that whisky out to Tim!” He sat back and laughed uproariously. “You should have heard Marie perform when that gate rushed up and hit us! Wanted to get out and walk back… And the garage bloke looked like he wanted to walk back with her. Anyhow, I gave Lizzie a preliminary canter after the last gate, then I let her out! One thing I've got against motor cars—they can't take a gutter like a horse. And what do you think! I offered to drive Marie to the dance to-night and she turned me down!”

“The Ford's done you one good turn, then.” Mac leaned back against the wall with his hands clasped

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behind his head. “Bill, why do you run around with those awful women? There's plenty of decent girls about.”

“Huh! Want to see me roped and branded, do you! What would I do with a wife?”

“We've got a house … a decent property. We're making good money … and you're chucking your cash away on a lot of cheap women!”

“Cheap be damned! They cost a damned sight more than your decent ones. Anyhow, can you see me married and leg-roped to a house and furniture and God knows what, and one day some fellow rings up and says, ‘Bill, I want you to take a thousand bullocks down to New South.’ Then I'd have to do like the other married drovers—go and leave the wife on her own for six months, or say ‘No, thanks, old man, you'll have to get someone else.’ And every day for the next six months I would be thinking, ‘They ought to be on the Barcoo by this’ or ‘They'll be camping at Northampton, to-night.’ And I'd go and ring up Blackall and ask what the road's like on to Tambo … what the grass is like … how the water's holding. I would be doing every stage of that damned trip and cursing the bad luck that kept me off it.”

“Anyhow …” he leaned forward with a touch of heat. “What would any decent girl want with me? She would want to know all sorts of questions about my people.… Could I tell her I never knew my father … that I'm a bull without a pedigree.… A damned scrubber!”

Mac rose to pacify him. Bill's secret never came to the surface until he had had a few drinks, but Mac

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always found him easier to handle then, than when he was cold sober. He threw open the veranda doors and a wave of dance music floated across from the hall. “Don't be stupid, Bill! We're not cattle, and there are millions of people in the world in the same boat as yourself. Anyhow, who can tell by looking at a man whether his parents were married or not? Go and have a dance and forget about yourself.”

Bill rose and stared moodily across to the lighted windows of the hall where crowded couples were weaving around to the strains of a foxtrot like a mob of milling cattle. “Are you coming across?”

“Not me. I can't dance.”

“Come on! Come and put your arm round a flesh and blood woman instead of dreaming about your girl on a pedestal down south.”

Mac shook his head and sat down on his bed again. “I think I'll turn in. Don't make too much row when you come home—if you do come home.”

Bill turned in the doorway with a short, bitter laugh. “Don't worry … I'm going to get half-shot before I go across there, and the first girl I meet, I'll ask her to marry me—just to oblige you!” He reflected a moment. “Maybe I'd better get three-parts shot. And if she ever holds it up against me, I'll tell her it was your idea!”

He walked aggressively downstairs to the bar. “The usual, Tom, and don't let me drink with the flies.” He peered suspiciously at a quaintly garbed group of masked men on the opposite side of the bar. “What's this … the Kelly Gang … or am I just drunk?”

The barman laughed. “No, they're from the ball.

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It's fancy-dress … and you've got to wear a mask till midnight. Aren't you going?”

“Too right … when I've had a few more drinks. What about a mask … and where can I get a fancy costume?”

“Aw, go as you are.” The barman leaned forward and surveyed Bill from the heavy, low-slung spurs, fine gabardine trousers, and silk shirt, to the truculent expression on his face. “Anyhow, it's too damned hot to wear a fur coat like a polar bear or a suit of armour.…”

“Whoa! That'll do me!” Bill thumped the bar and clung to a fleeting inspiration. “Fill 'em up again and get me a mask, then I'm off.”

Armour. That was the idea that crystallized his feelings. He was just in the mood to challenge someone … anyone. The cantankerous spirit roused by the old argument rankled raw in him and craved an outlet in battle … the fiercer the better. He stumbled down the dim passage leading to the back of the hotel, turning the idea enthusiastically over in his head. A sheet of galvanized iron would soon provide armour … a bit hot and heavy, though. The scheme offered all sorts of satisfying possibilities. He would get a horse, ride up the steps into the hall, and challenge the world. Great idea!

In the darkness of the back veranda he failed to notice an obstacle till he fell over it with a resounding clatter. He picked himself up with a savage desire to kick something hard—and found the thing he had fallen over—a shiny new garbage-tin.

He did not assault it immediately. Instead, he picked

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up the wide, round lid, studied it thoughtfully, then with a chuckle of mischievous joy, let himself into the big, deserted kitchen. He levered at the handle till he could slip a forearm through it, then his roving eyes quested along the shelves till a big new aluminium saucepan caught his attention. He took it down and examined it critically. Instead of a long handle it had two lugs which, he reflected, was all to the good. He fitted it on his head, over his hat. Fine! The costume was progressing.

What was the next item … arms! He selected a broad-bladed meat-chopper from the cook's array, and balanced it appreciatively in his hand, then laid it down again with a sigh. He was sober enough to realize that if he hit anyone with that they might fail to see the joke.

As he crossed the yard a sagging clothes-line dislodged his helmet. He grabbed the clothes-prop—a long, slender sapling—to jerk the line to safety, when inspiration stayed his hand. With a joyous chuckle he dragged the clothes-prop clear and shook it aloft. His lance! A sword next. Where could he get a sword! He walked out of the yard into a dark narrow lane. The big, heavy head of the hotel draught-horse drooped sleepily over the opposite gate. The sword was temporarily forgotten. It was only the work of a minute to slip the dilapidated winkers on, to couple a short length of light rope to the bit for reins. He vaulted light-heartedly on to the broad back, rearranged his garbage-tin shield, fitted the saucepan helmet well down on his head, adjusted the black mask over his eyes, picked up the lance, and jabbed the bewildered draught-horse with the spurs.

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It gave one indignant snort and lumbered sideways into the lane.

The wide, dusty street was bathed in moonlight. The unwilling charger sidled and snorted and reefed past the dark cluster of cars parked in front of the hotel, and found himself swung round the corner, headed for the long line of cars and the garish splash of light that marked the hall. Doors and windows were wide open, and the orchestra's quick, inciting rhythm stirred the blood of the rider.

Damn it, this entrance was too tame … too undramatic. Come on, Hairy Heels! He dug the spurs in, and as the heavy horse bucked forward and broke into a clumsy canter, he brandished his lance and loosed a wild “Yuck-ai-i!” that drew the attention of the lounging crowd on the broad veranda above the steps. Another wild yell and the spurs tickled the draught's ribs and goaded him faster. Suddenly a touring car drew out to the middle of the road in front of him, and stopped—almost blocking the course. There were two people in the front seat, apparently in a close embrace. A wild impulse shot through him. He would teach them to make love in the middle of the main street and cramp his entrance. He couched the lance, aimed at the centre of the wind-screen, and as the horse bounded again at a jab of the spurs, the rider let out a wild, long-drawn yell.

He had a momentary vision of the pair in the front seat separating suddenly, staring fear-stricken, then diving precipitately below the dash, and his loud, reckless laugh changed to a wild whoop. He was on them. He jerked up the point of the lance but too late. It

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missed the glass but hit the front of the hood. Something gave. The hood shot back and upward as the end of the sapling splintered and broke, and the jar nearly dislocated his shoulder. The shock of the collision drove the rider back on the horse's loins. As he swept past the car he caught a glimpse of a figure in white running toward the hall.

Hell! He must have scared the life out of that girl. With sudden contrition Bill pitched the splintered lance away, swung the astonished draught round the back of the car, and dragged him to an abrupt halt at the steps. The girl arriving at the same moment stopped and shrank back from what appeared to be a colossal horse with a rider in shining helmet and shield charging down on her.

The horseman vaulted to the ground in front of her and as he landed, the saucepan helmet tipped over his eyes, completely destroying the effect. “Damn!” Bill pushed it fiercely back. “I say, I'm sorry about that! I didn't mean to hit the car … bad judgment … but I apologize. …”

A half-smothered giggle interrupted him. His apologetic glance rose in mute inquiry to meet the girl's laughing eyes, tantalizingly veiled by the black domino.

“It's quite all right!” Her laugh was under control but her amused smile remained. “As a matter of fact, you did me a good turn butting in at that moment. I didn't mind sitting out in the car but going for a drive is a different matter.”

“Good!” Bill drew a long breath and his spirits rose again. A shaft of light from the doorway drew a glint of gold from the auburn hair that curled out from

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under a fillet. He had been too absorbed in the clear, warm intonation of her speech, the coming and going of the roguish dimple, and the delicate allure of her lips to register more than a fleeting impression of the girl.

She glanced at the ungainly horse puffing at his elbow and back at Bill. “What are you going to do with Rosinante?”


“Aren't you Don Quixote?” She surveyed him from head to foot, her smile dimpling mischievously. “No. … Something earlier, I think. The Round Table! That's got it. Why, we're of the same period.”

He stepped back a pace and looked at the girl. The moonlight shed a soft radiance on the long, white frock with the sleeves ending in fantastic points far below the hands. She wore it with an air that defied the whimsical changes of fashion. She might have stepped out of any period of history, and the impression remained that she could have stepped back into any period and fitted in—and still remained herself. Her hidden eyes mocked him as she poised like a bird arrested in flight and ready to dart off again at the instant. There was a wild grace about her in the lift of her head, the tilt of her chin.

He stepped closer and shook his head. “I'll give it up. Who are you?”

She dropped a low curtsy. “I am Elaine!”

The man's head went back and something tingled through his memory. “Elaine!” he murmured. “Elaine the Fair … Elaine the Lovable … Elaine the Lily Maid of Astolat.”

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“Splendid! You're the first man to recognize me to-night. And you, Sir Knight. … Who are you?”

With a strange tingling in his blood, Bill bowed before her. “My name is Lancelot!”

“Sir Lancelot. … Well met! Now I must go. Farewell!” And she moved up the broad stairs with a parting smile.


She paused, looking inquiringly down at the incongruous figure on the bottom step.

“May I have the next dance?”

She hesitated. “I have a vague remembrance of booking some dances ahead but I'm not certain which. If you care to risk it. …”

Bill would have risked anything for that smile. He ripped the winkers off the horse with a joyous parting oration. “Go home, Asparagus! And when they put you in the garbage-cart to-morrow, tell them that to-night you were up to the hocks in history!”

He bounded up the steps and joined the girl in white. Masked pierrots, cowboys, swagmen, and geisha turned to scrutinize the pair as they passed. Bill unlimbered his shield and helmet. “If my memory is right, your job is to look after my shield. Didn't you sit up in a tower with it or something?”

“Not quite!” She smiled disconcertingly. “There were two Elaines! If I were you I'd put it in the cloak-room.”