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  ― 152 ―

Chapter XVI

THE orchestra lowered their instruments and mopped their brows, the pianist flung a handful of minor chords at the lingering couples, and deserted the platform. Bill drew his partner into the main exodus toward the door. It was the end of their second dance and they found themselves jammed in a motley, hilarious crowd of bushrangers, sailors, pierrettes, and cowboys whose costumes were beginning to drift toward a common note as a result of the warm night. On the whole, the women were better off. The feminine idea of fancy-costume expressed itself in two distinct ways. One was a tendency to wear as little as possible or something diaphanous at the most, while the balance favoured male attire. It was rather curious, this hankering to parade in riding-breeches, jodhpurs, white flannels or shorts, while there was no compensating desire among the men to wear skirts.

Elaine threw her escort a questioning glance. “Where to?”

“Let's go outside for a bit of fresh air.”

The girl hesitated. “Look here, I haven't been with my party for ages.”

“Don't go yet,” he pleaded. “We haven't had a chance to discuss all the things that have happened since we met … how many centuries ago?”




  ― 153 ―

She laughed softly. “All right, Lancelot. But I'll have to make my peace with the party. Go ahead and I'll meet you in a couple of minutes.”

“On the spot marked X?”

“Ex-actly!”

Bill lit a cigarette and waited impatiently on the lowest step. Every car in sight housed red points of light from cigarettes and low voices that sometimes broke into quick laughter. There was no sign of the car he had tilted at. The memory of that moment when the hood flew up in the air over the heads of the occupants drew a chuckle from him and he wondered lightly who owned the car and what had happened to him. What a lucky coincidence it had been to give him the opportunity to meet Elaine. She danced like a fairy—light as thistledown, yet warm and vibrant in his arms. He inhaled a long, deep breath and smiled up at the inky velvet spaces between the stars. The situation was perfect—the prospects alluring.

But who could she be! He had met or knew by sight most of the girls in the district, and although the town was crowded for the race-meeting with people from a radius of a hundred miles, he was sure that this girl was a newcomer or a complete stranger.

She came tripping down the steps toward him. “Well, Lancelot. … What now?”

“A comfortable seat—if we can find an empty car.”

“Lead on! I hope you have no ideas of driving off with me like my last partner. The supply of rescuing knights must be running low.”

As they drew blank at car after car, Bill turned to her with a rueful expression. “If we don't find an


  ― 154 ―
empty car soon we may have to fall back on Lizzie—even if I've got to turn someone out. I hope you don't mind the long walk.”

“Carry on! I like this pavement. These holes and gullies in it are delightful, but my slippers ought to last as far as the corner.”

“It's just across the road.” They had been unsuccessful at every car, and the glowing ends of cigarettes showed even among the cars parked in the shadow of the hotel. Bill halted in front of a battered old Ford. “Here she is! Lizzie, this is Elaine! Elaine the Fair … Elaine the Lovable … Ow!”

“Shut up, you idiot! Are you trying to introduce me to the whole town!”

Bill rubbed the arm she had pinched then jerked open the door and dusted the seat with a handkerchief. “Will you come into my parlour …”

“If this dress gets covered with oil and grease, I'll send you the bill!”

“Right! Wait till I collect after the races, to-morrow. Cigarette?”

“Thanks.”

Bill studied her features closely in the light of the match but the black domino still masked her with maddening efficiency. Their fingers touched as she bent over the match, lighting up with practised skill. Then in turn she eyed the man as the glow of the match from his cupped hands illumined his features. The damaged side of Bill's face was toward her and she puzzled at the totally new impression she got from the crooked profile and the almost sneering twist of the lips.

He turned and studied her, leaning back in the


  ― 155 ―
shadows. “Elaine, who are you? What is your real name?”

He could sense her smile in the darkness. “What's wrong with Elaine? Don't you like it?”

“I do,” he replied simply. “For several reasons.”

“Now don't tell me your name isn't really Lancelot!”

“I won't, because I have as much right to Lancelot as you have to Elaine. But look here, this mask's the hottest thing I know. Let's take them off!”

She laughed tantalizingly. “Awfully curious, aren't you. It isn't midnight yet.”

“I mean it!”

“Well, on one condition—that we remain Lancelot and Elaine to one another … now and always. It will be ever so much more interesting to be just ourselves … without labels to identify us with the rest of the world. We will exist solely on our merits—or lack of them. We will not be judged by the friends we keep. No one will know whether our parents are rich or poor … or who they are … or whether we have any. Lancelot and Elaine … is it a bargain?”

Bill's hand stretched eagerly toward her. “It is!” He gripped the soft, warm hand and held it firmly, his blood tingling, then leaned toward her, fumbling at his mask with the other hand. “Ready?”

“Let's be dramatic about it. One … two … three. … Off!”

He peered eagerly into the dim corner where she leaned. Her domino was off. It lay like a black stain against her white frock but her face remained hidden in the shadows.

“Elaine!” His hands reached out, drawing her


  ― 156 ―
gently toward him. She came, scarcely resisting, her head tilted slightly away, and still baffling him. One hand slipped round a white clad shoulder, and his fingers touched the soft velvet of her chin, and turned the face toward him with the enigmatic smile faintly curving the lips. Then his head lowered, his arms tightened, and his lips met the soft allure of hers, and he pressed them hungrily and held them. …

The girl struggled free and her resolute hands pushed him firmly away. Bill, his blood aflame, stared restlessly at her calmly patting her disordered hair.

“Lancelot, I would like a drink. Can I trust you to get me one?”

He broke the ensuing silence with a short laugh. “I wanted one badly myself a while ago. Now … I'd rather bust my reputation and turn it down. However … what will you have? Whisky or ginger ale?”

“Both, please,” she announced with cool promptitude. “And remember … I'm trusting you.”

He returned in a few minutes with two amber-filled glasses and a bottle tucked under one arm. “Take your choice,” he invited, “and if you don't trust me, I'll drink both.”

“No, you won't!” She took a glass and held it toward him with a gay smile. “Here's to us!”

He clinked his glass against hers. “Lancelot and Elaine!” he toasted, and searched her elusive eyes over the top of it, but the dim shadows were on her side and baffled him completely.

“What are you going to do with the bottle?”

“Well, to tell the truth, I promised to take it to my cook this afternoon to keep him from coming to town


  ― 157 ―
and getting drunk. He is camped down the river with the plant, and when I forgot to take it this afternoon, I told him I would be back with it later. So he'll get it after the ball is over—if he's lucky.”

“The poor chap! It would serve you right if he came to town and got drunk.”

Bill frowned. “I hope he doesn't … not till after the races, anyhow.” He glanced at the girl. “Will you be at the meeting to-morrow?”

“That's chiefly why we are in Longreach.”

“Like to make some money?”

She leaned eagerly forward. “Lancelot, if you can put me on to a sure thing, I'm your friend for life! Is the delivery of this bottle of whisky connected with it?”

“Quite a lot.”

“Then off you go!” She pushed the door open but Bill's hand stretched out and closed it again.

“I wouldn't miss to-night for all the cooks and race meetings in the world!”

She studied him in silence as though she were debating some knotty problem, then she asked slowly. “Will it take long to get to this camp and back again?”

“No, Lizzie will get there and back in no time.”

She eyed him steadily. “Lancelot, you know I object to going for lonely car rides with strange men. …”

“Do you mean … you'll come?”

“If you'll promise to bring me safely back as soon as possible.”

“It's a bargain! Come on, Lizzie!”

He swung the starting-handle violently, and Lizzie responded with a roar that shattered the romantic effect of moonlight and soft music for every couple in the


  ― 158 ―
neighbourhood. Bill scrambled in behind the wheel and fumbled with the controls till he discovered the throttle, then he revved up the engine, let in the clutch, and Lizzie shot forward with a spasmodic bound.

Elaine gasped, clutched at the side for support as they progressed in a series of leaps and bounds, swung sharply round a corner, then gathered speed down the empty main street.

Bill grinned cheerfully. “Bit of the kangaroo about her for a start. She'll be all right!”

“I hope so!” Elaine threw a quick glance to right and left. They were passing the last scattered houses of the town. The squalid row of Japtown showed a furtive light and disappeared, then the Ford bounced high in the air. The girl braced her feet on the floor and took a firm grip with both hands. “Was that a culvert we went over?”

“We didn't go over. Only one wheel missed it!” the driver replied airily. “We'll soon be out of these ruts.”

As they bowled along a smoother track, Elaine ventured a question. “What sort of camp is it we are going to?”

“Droving-camp.”

“Oh … are you a drover?”

A gate loomed in the headlights and the car pulled up with a jerk. “You don't belong to Queensland!”

“How do you know?” she parried.

“You have the down-south attitude to drovers. I have seen your New South drovers. Met an old chap plugging along a road in a sulky behind a couple of hundred sheep. He had half a dozen dogs and he was


  ― 159 ―
his own cook, horsetailer, boss, and men combined—didn't even have a spare horse, and the one in the sulky looked ready to lie down and die at the next gate.”

He darted a quick appraising glance at her. “Do you like horses?”

Her reply came quick and sincere. “I love them!”

“I'm sorry it isn't daylight or I would show you some of mine. How about coming down to-morrow?”

“I'll see … I'd like to, but we are only passing through and may go on at any moment. By the by, do we go through this gate or are we waiting till you say ‘Open, Sesame!”’

“Sorry!” he laughed, as he scrambled out and threw the gate open. Lizzie bounded through, grazing one post.

At the third gate the girl turned with a worried look. “How much farther on is the camp? The ball must be nearly over.”

“Not on your life! It goes on till daylight. But we're nearly there.” They continued along the rutted track for half a mile, then Lizzie's nose swung off through the long grass at undiminished speed. “Better hang on. It's a little bit bumpy here!”

“Bumpy … is right!” Elaine was hanging desperately on through a series of jolts and lurches and jars. “Hadn't you … better go slower … through this!”

“No, we'll be right. Camp's just ah. …” Bang! Crash!

Bill felt himself jerked hard over the steering-wheel as the Ford jarred to an abrupt stop. He gasped to regain the wind that had been knocked out of him, then looked quickly round. The girl lay forward in a


  ― 160 ―
crumpled white heap on the floor. He called her by name, stretched a hand toward her with fear in his heart.

She lay quite still. He jumped out, lifted the limp figure gently out of the cramped space and looked quickly, anxiously around. They were in a patch of stiff, rank grass, but the camp could not be far away. He took a bearing and started off through the scattered timber with the unconscious girl in his arms.

Just as a glimpse of the white tent-fly through the trees came to hearten him, the girl stirred slightly with a low moan. He strode on, calling breathlessly as the dull glow of the camp-fire showed up. “Tim! … Percy!”

There was no reply. He staggered to the tent-fly. The wagonette and harness were gone—so were Tim and Percy. The camp was deserted. He lowered the recovering girl gently. Her cheeks were pallid and her breath came in short, jerky gasps. Bill dragged his swag out and laid the girl on the blankets, making a pillow for her head, then hurried to find a water-bag.

When he returned, Elaine's eyes were open. He dropped on his knees beside her and held a pannikin of water to her lips. She sipped it slowly, never taking her searching eyes from his face, then she lay back on the pillow and signed to him to leave her. Bill withdrew reluctantly. He heaped wood on the fire and had a good look round. There were the tracks where the wagonette had been pulled out and the horses harnessed. The stores and swags were all stacked under the tent-fly.

Bill bethought himself of the whisky and hurried back to the Ford. First he kicked the tall grass away


  ― 161 ―
and examined the obstacle they had hit. It was a solid little gidgee stump concealed in the grass, and the force of the impact had bent the axle till the front tyres almost touched. His heart sank, not at the thought of the damage but at the realization that they were marooned, without car, without wagonette or conveyance of any kind. The smell of whisky pervaded the atmosphere and foretold the fate of the bottle before he looked inside the car. The bottle was in fragments but a little remained in the broken bottom part and he carried it carefully back to camp.

Elaine was sitting dazedly on the blankets. She regarded him with a vacant, puzzled expression. “What happened?”

“I'm sorry,” he answered contritely. “Lizzie's sitting back there with her arms wrapped round a gidgee stump.”

Her eyes were troubled. “Does that mean …?”

“It means that I'll have to find the horses and ride back to town for a car to take you in. The cook and horsetailer have cleared out with the wagonette, so that's the only way.”

She sat still, staring ahead with the leaping flames of the fire lighting the troubled features. “Don't go, Lancelot! … Don't leave me alone.”

He knelt beside her with worried eyes. “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head slowly. “Just a bump on the head, and all the wind knocked out of me. I'll be all right. … Just feel weak and sick now. … Let me rest a while, but don't leave me.”

“But your people. … They'll be worrying!”




  ― 162 ―

“I don't think so. … I'm travelling with friends. All the hotels were full, so we had to split up. I took a room at the Imperial, then some other people offered to put me up, so each will think I'm with the other.”

He studied her with a serious, worried expression, then he rose and rummaged about till he found some aspirin and he spilled some white tablets into her palm. Her expressionless eyes watched him as he gently removed her shoes and spread a blanket over her knees. She lowered herself slowly back to the pillow and he drew the blanket up to her shoulders, took the soft, passive hand that lay on the pillow, and held it tight in his warm palm while his contrite eyes looked down at the tired features. Then he softly released her hand, and with a husky “Good night, Kid,” rose to his feet and turned away.

The last thing in Elaine's consciousness before sleep claimed her was a picture of the man sitting motionless in front of the fire, gazing into its depths with the red glow on his twisted, Machiavellian features. They were quite alone, yet somehow no thought of fear occurred to her.

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