"There may be some bother about the seals of the bags," said the merchant, "but we'll pray it may be rough, and in that case nothing is simpler—one bag at least can get lost, and the rest can have their seals damaged, and so on. You will go out at ten to-morrow night, and you will have pretty well till daylight to do the job. Do you understand?"
Benjamin had begun to reflect.
"Doesn't it mean gaol if I'm caught?"
"Nonsense, man. How can you be caught? It's I who take the risk. I am responsible for the delivery of the mails, and if anything goes wrong it's I will have to suffer. You do your little bit, and I'll see that you get off scot-free. Here's my hand on it."
The merchant held out his flabby hand, and Tresco took it.
"It's a bargain?"
"It's a bargain," said Tresco.
Crookenden reached for his cheque book, and wrote out a cheque for fifty pounds.
"Take this cheque to the bank, and cash it."
Tresco took the bit of signed paper, and looked at it.
"Fifty?" he remarked. "I said a hundred down."
"You shall have the balance when you have done the work."
"And I can do it how I like, where I like, and when I like between nightfall and dawn?"
"Then I think I can do it so that all the post office clerks in the country couldn't bowl me out."
But the merchant merely nodded in response to this braggadocio—he was already giving his mind to other matters.
Without another word the goldsmith left the office. He walked quickly along the street, regarding neither the garish shops nor the people he passed, and entered the doors of the Kangaroo Bank, where the Semitic clerk stood behind the counter.
"How will you take it?"
The words were sweet to Benjamin's ear.
"Tens," he said.
The bank-notes were handed to him, and he went home quickly.
The digger was sitting where Tresco had left him.
"There's your money," said the goldsmith, throwing the notes upon the table.
The digger counted them.
"That's only fifty," he said.
"You shall have the balance in two days, but not an hour sooner," replied Tresco. "In the meanwhile, you can git. I'm busy."
Without more ceremony, he went into his workshop.
"Jake, I give you a holiday for three days," he said. "Go and see your Aunt Maria, or your Uncle Sam, or whoever you like, but don't let me see your ugly face for three solid days."
The apprentice looked at his master open-mouthed.
The goldsmith went to the safe which stood in a corner of the shop, and took out some silver.
"Here's money," he said. "Take it. Don't come back till next Friday. Make yourself scarce; d'you hear?"
"Right, boss. Anythin' else?"
"Nothing. Go instanter."
Jake vanished as if the fiend were after him, and Tresco seated himself at the bench.
Out of a drawer immediately above the leather apron of the bench he took the wax impression of something, and a square piece of brass.
"Fortune helps those who help themselves," he muttered. "When the Post Office sent me their seals to repair, I made this impression. Now we will see if I can reproduce a duplicate which shall be a facsimile, line for line."
Rock Cod and Macaroni.
The small boat came alongside the pilot-shed with noise and fuss out of all proportion to the insignificance of the occasion.
It was full spring-tide, and the blue sea filled the whole harbour and threatened to flood the very quay which stretched along the shore of Timber Town.
In the small boat were two fishermen, the one large and fat, the other short and thick.
"Stoppa, Rocka Codda!" cried the big man, who was of a very dark complexion. "You son 'a barracouta, what I tella you? Why you not stoppa ze boat?"
"Stop 'er yourself, you dancin', yelpin' Dago."
"You calla me Dago? I calla you square-'ead. I calla you Russian-Finna. I calla you mongrel dogga, Rocka Codda."
The Pilot's crew, standing at the top of the slip, grinned broadly, and fired at the fishermen a volley of chaff which diverted the Italian's attention from his mate in the boat.
"Ah-ha!" His voice sounded as shrill as a dozen clarions, and it carried half-a-mile along the quay. He sprang ashore. "Hi-ya!" It was like the yell of a hundred cannibals, but the Pilot's crew only grinned. "You ze boys. I bringa you ze flounder for tea. Heh?" In one moment the fat fisher was back in the boat, and in another he had scrambled ashore with a number of fish, strung together through the gills. Above the noise of the traffic on the quay his voice rose, piercing. "I presenta. Flounder, all aliva. I give ze fish. You giva"—with suddenness he comically lowered his voice—"tobacco, rumma—what you like." He lay the gift of flounders on the wooden stage. "Where I get him? I catcha him. Where you get ze tobacco, rumma? You catcha him. Heh?"
Rock Cod, having made fast the boat, was now standing beside his mate.
A sailor picked up the flounders, and, turning back the gills of one of them, said, "Fresh, eh, Macaroni?"
The bulky Italian sidled up to the man. "Whata I tell you? Where I catcha him? In ze sea. Where you catcha ze tobacco? In ze sea. What you say? Heh?" He gave the sailor a dig in the ribs.
By way of answer he received a push. His foot slipped on the wet boards of the stage, and into the water he fell, amid shouts of laughter.
As buoyant as a cork, he soon came to the surface, and, scrambling upon the stage, he seized a barracouta from the boat, and rushed at his mate. "You laugha at me, Rocka Codda? I teacha you laugh." Taking the big fish by the tail, he belaboured his partner in business with the scaly carcase, till the long spines of the fish's back caught in the fleshy part of his victim's neck. But Rock Cod's screams only drew callous comment from his persecutor. "You laugha at your mate? I teacha you. Rocka Codda, I teacha you respecta Macaroni. Laugha now!"
With a sudden jerk Rock Cod obtained his freedom, though not without additional agony. He faced his partner, with revenge in his wild eyes and curses on his tongue. But just at this moment, a stoutly-built, red-faced sailor pushed his way through the Pilot's crew, and, snatching the barracouta from the Italian, he thrust himself between the combatants.
"Of all the mad-headed Dagoes that God A'mighty sent to curse this earth you, Macaroni, are the maddest. Why, man, folks can hear your yelling half the length of the quay."
"Looka!" cried the Italian. "Who are you? Why you come 'ere? Rocka Codda and Macaroni fighta, but ze ginger-headed son of a cooka mus' interfere. Jesu Christo! I teacha you too. I got ze barracouta lef'."
He turned to seize another fish from the bottom of the boat, but the sight of two men fighting on the slip with barracoutas for weapons might detract too much from the dignity of the Pilot's crew. The Italian was seized, and forcibly prevented from causing further strife.
"D'you think I came here to save Rock Cod from spoiling your ugly face?" asked the red-haired man. "No, siree. My boss, Mr. Crookenden, sent me. He wants to see you up at his office; and I reckon there's money in it, though you deserve six months' instead, the pair of you."
"Heh? Your boss wanta me? I got plenty fisha, flounder, barracuda, redda perch. Now then?"
"He don't want your fish: he wants you and Rock Cod," said the red-headed man.
"Georgio"—the Italian was, in a moment, nothing but politeness to the man he had termed "ginger"—"we go. Ze fisha?—I leava my boat, all my fisha, here wit' my frien's. Georgio, conducta—we follow."
Accompanied by the two fishermen, the red-headed peacemaker walked up the quay.
"What's the trouble with your boss?" asked Rock Cod. "What's 'e want?"
"How can I tell? D'you think Mr. Crookenden consults me about his business? I'm just sent to fetch you along, and along you come."
"I know, I understanda," said the Italian. "He have ze new wine from Italia, my countree—he senda for Macaroni to tasta, and tell ze qualitee. You too bloody about ze neck, Rocka Codda, to come alonga me. You mus' washa, or you go to sell ze fish."
"Go an' hawk the fish yourself," retorted Rock Cod. "You're full o' water as a sponge, an' there'll be a pool where you stand on the gen'leman's carpet."
Wrangling thus, they made their way towards the merchant's office.
While this scene was being performed at the port of Timber Town, Benjamin Tresco was in his workshop, making the duplicate of the chief postmaster's seal. With file and graver he worked, that the counterfeit might be perfect. Half-a-dozen impressions of the matrix lay before him, showing the progress his nefarious work was making towards completion.
"One struggle more and I am free," muttered the goldsmith. "The English seals, I happen to know, usually arrive in a melted or broken condition. To restore them too perfectly would be to court detection—a dab of sealing-wax, impressed with a key and sat upon afterwards, will answer the purpose. But this robbing business—well, it suits my temperament, if it doesn't suit my conscience. Oh, I like doing it—my instincts point that way. But the Sunday-school training I had when a boy spoils the flavour of it. Why can't folk let a lad alone to enjoy his sins? Such a boy as I was commits 'em anyway. An' if he must commit 'em and be damned for 'em, why spoil both his lives—at least they might leave him alone here. But they ain't practical, these parsonic folk." He rose, and took a white, broken-lipped jug from a shelf, and drank a deep draught. "Water," he murmured. "See? Water, air, sunshine, all here for me, in common with the parson. P'r'aps I shall lack water in limbo, but so, too, may the parson—anyway he and I are on the same footing here; therefore, why should he torment me by stirring up my conscience? He has a bad time here and—we'll grant this for the sake of argument—a good time afterwards. Now, I've got to have a bad time with old Safety Matches down below. Why, then, should the parson want to spoil my time here? It looks mean anyway. If I were a parson, I'd make sure I had a good time in this world, and chance the rest. Sometimes I'm almost persuaded to be converted, and take the boss position in a bethel, all amongst the tea and wimmen-folk. Lor', wouldn't I preach, wouldn't I just ladle it out, and wouldn't the dears adore me?"
Suddenly there was a loud knocking at the door. Instantly the spurious seals and the fraudulent matrix were swept into the drawer above the apron of the bench, and Benjamin Tresco rose, benignant, to receive his visitors.
He opened the door, and there entered the red-headed sailor, who was closely followed by Rock Cod and Macaroni.
Tresco drew himself up with dignity.
"This is quite unexpected," he said. "The honour is great. Who do I see here but Fish-ho and his amiable mate? It is sad, gentlemen, but I'm off flounders since the Chinaman, who died aboard the barque, was buried in the bay. It is a great misfortune for Fish-ho to have dead Chinamen buried on his fishing-grounds, but such is the undoubted fact."
"You need have no fear on that score, mister," said the red-headed sailor. "They've not come to sell fish. Speak up, Macaroni."
"We come to tella you we come from Mr. Crookendena. We come to you accepta ze service of Rocka Codda and Macaroni."
For one brief moment Tresco looked perplexed. Then his face assumed its usual complacence. "Are you in the know, too?" he asked of the seaman.
"All I know is that I was told to pilot these two men to your shop. That done, I say good-day."
"And the same to you," said Tresco. "Happy to have met you, sir, and I'm sorry there's nothing to offer you in the jug but water."
"There's no bones broke anyway," replied the sailor as he edged towards the door. "But if you'll say when the real old stingo is on tap, I'll show you how to use the water."
"Certainly," said Tresco. "Nothing will please me better. Good afternoon. Sorry you must go so soon. Take great care of yourself. Good men are scarce."
As the door closed behind the sailor the goldsmith turned to the fishermen.
"So you were sent to me by Mr. Crookenden?"
"That's so." It was Rock Cod who answered. "He give us the price of a drink, an' says he, 'There'll be five pound each for you if you do as Mr. Tresco tells you.' We're a-waitin' orders; ain't that so, Macaroni?"
"Rocka Codda spik alla right—he understanda ze Inglese. I leave-a it to him."
"You are good men in a boat, I have no doubt. Very good." The goldsmith pursed his lips, and looked very important. "Mr. Crookenden has entrusted me with a mission. You row the boat—I carry out the mission. All you have to do is to bring your boat round to Mr. Crookenden's wharf at ten o'clock to-night, and the rest is simple. Your money will be paid you in the morning, in full tale, up to the handle, without fail. You understand? Five pounds a piece for a few hours' hire of your boat and services."
"We catch your drift all right," said Rock Cod.
"But, remember"—the goldsmith looked very serious—"mum's the word."
"I have ze mum," said Macaroni. "I spik only to Rocka Codda, he spik only to me—zat alla right?"
"Quite so, but be punctual. We shall go out at ten o'clock, wet or fine. Till then, adieu."
"Ze same to you," said the Italian. "You ze fine fella."
"Take this, and drink success to my mission." Tresco handed them a silver coin.
"That part of the business is easy," remarked Rock Cod. "But as to the job you've got in hand, well, the nature o' that gets over me."
"All you're asked to do is to row," said Tresco. "As to the rest, that lies with me and my resourcefulness. Now git."
Benjamin opened the door, and pushed the fishermen out.
"Remember," he said, as they departed, "if I hear a word about the matter in the bar of any hotel, our bargain is off and not a cent will you get for your pains."
"Look 'ere, cap'n." Rock Cod turned suddenly round. "We passed you our word: ain't that good enough?"
"My trusty friend, it is. So-long. Go, and drink my health."
Without another word the fishermen went, and the goldsmith returned to put the finishing touches to his fraudulent work.
What the Bush Robin Saw.
The Bush Robin had a pale yellow breast, and his dominion extended from the waterfall, at the bottom of which lay a deep, dark, green pool, to the place where the rimu tree had fallen across the creek.
His life was made up of two things; hunting for big white grubs in the rotten barrels of dead trees, and looking at the yellow pebbles in the stream. This last was a habit that the wood-hen had taught him. She was the most inquisitive creature in the forest, and knew all that was going on beyond the great river, into which the creek fell, and as far away as the Inaccessible Mountains, which were the end of the world: not that she travelled far, but that all wood-hens live in league, and spend their time in enquiring into other people's business.
The tui and the bell-bird might sing in the tops of the tall trees, but the Bush Robin hardly ever saw them, except when they came down to drink at the creek. The pigeons might coo softly, and feed on tawa berries till actually they were ready to burst, and could not fly from the trees where they had gorged themselves—as great gluttons as ever there were in Rome: but the Bush Robin hardly knew them, and never spoke to them. He was a bird of the undergrowth, a practical entomologist, with eyes for nothing but bugs, beetles, larvae, stick-insects, and the queer yellow things in the river.
Being a perfectly inoffensive bird, he objected to noise, and for that reason he eschewed the company of the kakas and paroquets who ranged the forest in flocks, and spoilt all quietude by quarrelling and screeching in the tree-tops. But for the kakapo, the green ground-parrot who lived in a hollow rata tree and looked like a bunch of maiden-hair fern, he had great respect. This was a night-bird who interfered with no one, and knew all that went on in the forest between dark and dawn.
Then there was the red deer, the newest importation into those woods. The Bush Robin never quite knew the reason of his own inquisitiveness, and the roaming deer never quite knew why the little bird took so much interest in his movements, but the fact remained that whenever the antlered autocrat came to drink at the stream, the Bush Robin would stand on a branch near by, and sing till the big buck thought the little bird's throat must crack. His thirst quenched, the red deer would be escorted by the Bush Robin to the confine of the little bird's preserve, and with a last twitter of farewell, Robin would fly back rapidly to tell the news to his mate.
I had almost forgotten her. She was slightly bigger than Robin himself, and possessed a paler breast. But no one saw them together; and though they were the most devoted pair, none of the forest folk ever guessed the fact, but rather treated their tender relationship with a certain degree of scepticism.
Therefore, these things having been set forth, it was not strange that the Bush Robin, having eaten a full meal of fat white grubs, should sit on a bough in the shade of a big totara tree and watch, with good-natured interest begotten of the knowledge that he had dined, the movements of the world around him. The broken ground, all banks and holes and roots, was covered with dead leaves, moss, sticks, and beds of ferns, and was overgrown with supple-jacks, birch-saplings and lance-wood. On every side rose immense trees, whose dark boughs, stretching overhead, shut out the sun from the gloomy shades below.
The Bush Robin, whose sense of hearing was keen and discriminating, heard a strange sound which was as new as it was interesting to him. He had heard the roaring of the stags and the screeching of the parrots, but this new sound was different from either, though somewhat like both. There it was again. He must go and see what it could mean. In a moment, he was flitting beneath the trees, threading his way through the leafy labyrinth, in the direction of the strange noise. As he alighted on a tall rock, which reared itself abruptly from the hurly-burly of broken ground, before him he saw two strange objects, the like of which he had never seen, and of which his friend the wood-hen, who travelled far and knew everything, had not so much as told him. They must be a new kind of stag, but they had no horns—yet perhaps those would grow in the spring. One had fallen down a mossy bank, and the other, who was dangling a supple-jack to assist his friend in climbing, was making the strange noise. The creature upon the ground grunted like the wild pigs, from whose rootings in the earth the Bush Robin was wont to derive immense profit in the shape of a full diet of worms; but these new animals walked on two feet, in a manner quite new to the little bird.
Then the strange beings picked up from the ground queer things which the Bush Robin failed to comprehend, and trudged on through the forest. The one that led the way struck the trees with a glittering thing, which left the boles marked and scarred, and both held in their mouths sticks which gave off smoke, a thing beyond the comprehension of the little bird, and more than interesting to his diminutive mind. Here were new wonders, creatures who walked on two legs, but not as birds—the one with the beard like a goat's must be the husband of the one who had none; and both breathed from their mouths the vapour of the morning mist.
The Bush Robin followed them, and when they paused to rest on the soft couch of ferns beneath a rimu tree, the bird alighted on the ground and hopped close to them.
"I could catch the little beggar with my hand," said one.
"Don't hurt him," said the other, "he'll bring us luck."
"Then give me a match—my pipe's gone out."
The match was lighted, and the cloud of smoke from the re-lit pipe floated up to the boughs overhead. The Bush Robin watched the miracle, but it was the yellow flame which riveted his attention. The lighted match had been thrown away, and before the smoker could put his foot on it, the little bird darted forward, seized the white stem and, with the burning match in his beak, flitted to the nearest bough.
The men laughed, and watched to see what would happen.
Pleased beyond expression with his new prize, the Bush Robin held it in his beak till a fresh sensation was added to the new things he was experiencing: there was a sudden shake of his little head, the match fell, and went out.
The men undid their swags and began to eat, and the Bush Robin feasted with them on white crumbs which looked, like the match-stick, as if they might be grubs, but tasted quite different.
"Tucker's good," said the man with the beard, "but, I reckon, what we want is a drink."
"The billy's empty," said the other—"I spilt it when I came that cropper, and nearly broke my neck."
"Then there's nothing for it but to wait till we come to a stream."
They rose, tied up their swags, and journeyed on; the bearded man continuing to blaze the track, the younger man following him, and the Bush Robin fluttering beside them.
The creek was but a little way off. Soon the noise of its waters greeted the ears of the travellers. The thirsty men hurried in the direction of the sound, which grew louder and louder, till suddenly pushing through a tangled screen of supple-jacks and the soft, green fronds of a small forest of tree-ferns, they stood on the bank of a clear stream, which rushed noisily over a bed of grey boulders.
The bearded man stooped to drink: the other dipped the billy into the water and drank, standing.
The little bird had perched himself on a big rock which stood above the surface of the swirling water.
"Good," said he with the beard. "There's no water like bush water."
"There's that little beggar again," said the other, watching the bird upon the rock.
"He's following us around. This shall be named Bush Robin Creek."
"Bush Robin Creek it is," said the other. "Now take a prospect, and see if you can get a colour."
The older man turned over a few boulders, and exposed the sand that lay beneath them. Half a shovelful of this he placed in a tin dish, which he half-filled with water. Then squatting on his heels, he rotated the dish with a cunning movement, which splashed little laps of water over the side and carried off the lighter particles of sand and dirt. When all the water in the dish was thus disposed of, he added more and renewed the washing process, till but a tablespoonful of the heaviest particles of grit remained at the bottom. This residue he poked over with his forefinger, peering at it nearly.
Apparently he saw nothing. More water was put into the dish, and the washing process was continued till but a teaspoonful of grit remained.
"We've got the colour!" he exclaimed, after closely examining this residue.
His comrade knelt beside him, and looked at the "prospect."
A little more washing, and at the bottom of the dish lay a dozen flakes of gold, with here and there a grain of sand.
"We must go higher up," said the bearded man. "This light stuff has been carried over a bar, maybe, and the heavier gold has been left behind."
Slowly and with difficulty they worked their way along the bank of the creek, till at last they came to a gorge whose rocky sides stood like mighty walls on either side.
The gold-seekers were wading up to their waists in water, and the Bush Robin was fluttering round them as they moved slowly up the stream. Expecting to find the water deeper in the gorge, the man in front went carefully. The rocky sides were full of crevices and little ledges, on one of which, low down upon the water, the little Robin perched.
The man reached forward and placed his hand upon the ledge on which the bird was perched; the Bush Robin fluttered overhead, and then the man gave a cry of surprise. His hand had rested on a layer of small nuggets and golden sand.
"We've got it, Moonlight! There's fully a couple of ounces on this ledge alone."
The bearded man splashed through the water, and looked eagerly at the gold lying just above the water-line.
"My boy, where there's that much on a ledge there'll be hundreds of ounces in the creek."
He rapidly pushed ahead, examining the crevices of the rock, above and below the water-line.
"It's here in stacks," he exclaimed, "only waiting to be scraped out with the blade of a knife."
Drawing his sheath-knife from his belt, he suited the action to the word; and standing in the water, the two men collected gold as children gather shells on the shore.
And the Bush Robin watched the gold-seekers take possession of the treasured things, which he had looked upon as his own especial property; fancying that they glittered merely for his delight.
The Robbery of the Mails.
The night was pitch dark; the wind had gone to rest, and not a ripple stirred the face of the black waters.
"Comin', comin'. I've only bin waitin', this 'arf hour."
The man standing at the horse's head ran round to the back of his "express"—a vehicle not unlike a square tray on four wheels—and, letting down the tail-board, pulled out a number of mail-bags.
With two of these under each arm, he made his way to the wooden steps which led down to the water's edge, and the men in the boat heard the shuffling and scraping of his feet, as he felt with his boot for the topmost step; his hands being fully occupied in holding the bags.
Slowly, step by step, he stumped down to the water, where willing hands took his burden and stowed it in the bottom of the boat.
"Four," said the carrier. "One more lot, and that lets me out."
As he reached the top of the wharf, on his return journey, the bright lamps of his express dazzled his eyes, and somebody cannoned against him at the back of the trap.
"Now, then! Who're yer shovin' up agin?"
"All right, my man. I'm not stealing any of the bags."
The express-man recognised the voice.
"Is that you, Mr. Crookenden? Beg pardon, sir."
"Come, come, get the mail aboard. My men don't want to be out in the boat all night."
The man carried down his last load of bags, and returned, panting.
"There's only the paper to be signed," he said, "and then they can clear."
"Give me the form."
The man handed a piece of paper to the mail-contractor.
"How many bags?"
By the light of the lamps Crookenden signed the paper, and handed it back to the carrier, who mounted to his seat, and drove away.
The merchant went to the edge of the wharf.
"All right, down there?"
"Aye, aye, sir," replied a gruff voice.
"Then cast off."
There was the noise of oars, and a dark object upon the waters vanished into the night.
"Good-night," answered the gruff voice faintly, and Crookenden turned his steps towards home.
"That's all serene," said the owner of the gruff voice, whose modulations had suddenly assumed their accustomed timbre—the rather rasping articulation of the goldsmith.
"Couldn't have fallen out better if I'd arranged it myself. Lay to! belay! you lazy lubbers, forrard—or whatever is the correct nautical expression to make her jump. Put your backs into it, and there'll be five pounds apiece for you in the morning."
"Alla right, boss; we ze boys to pulla. Rocka Codda, you asleep zere?—you maka Macaroni do alla ze work."
"Pull yerself, you lazy Dago. Anyone w'd think you was rowing the bloomin' boat by yourself. Why, man, I'm pulling you round every dozen strokes. The skipper, aft there, is steerin' all he knows agin me."
The truth was that Benjamin's manipulation of the tiller was extraordinary and erratic, and it was not until the boat was well past the wharves that he mastered its mysteries.
The tide was ebbing, and when the boat was in the stream her speed doubled, and there was no need for using the oars. Swiftly and silently she drifted past the lights on the quay and the ghostly houses which stood beside the water.
The Pilot's system of beacons was so perfect that with their aid a tyro such as Tresco found no difficulty in steering his course out of the harbour.
Outside in the bay, the lights of two vessels could be seen: those of the plague-ship and of the steamer which, unable to get into the port in the teeth of the tide, was waiting for the mails.
But Tresco pointed his boat's nose straight for the long beach which fringed the end of the bay.
The rowers had seen the mail-bags put aboard the boat, and they now wondered why they did not go straight to the steamer.
"Hi! boss. The mail-steamer lies to starboard: that's her lights behind the barque's."
"Right, my man," replied Tresco; "but I have a little business ashore here, before we pull out to her."
The boat was now nearing the beach. As soon as her keel touched the sand, Tresco jumped into the water and, ordering the fishermen to do the same, the boat was quickly pulled high and dry.
"Take out the bags," commanded the pseudo-skipper.
The men demurred.
"Why you do this? Santa Maria! is alla these mail go back to town?"
"There's the steamer—out there!" exclaimed Rock Cod. "A man'd think——"
But he was cut short.
"You saw Mr. Crookenden put the bags aboard. He's the contractor—I'm only acting under his instructions. Do you wish to remain fishermen all your lives, or would you rather die rich?"
"We know the value of dollars, you may bet that," answered Rock Cod.
"Then lend a hand and get these bags ashore. And you, Macaroni, collect driftwood for a fire."
When the mail-bags were all landed, Benjamin took a lantern from the boat, lit it, and walked up the beach to where the fishermen stood, nonplussed and wondering.
"Your feet must be wet, Macaroni."
"Wet feet are bad, not to say dangerous. Go down to the boat, and you'll find a bottle of rum and a pannikin. Bring them here, and we'll have a dram all round."
Tresco placed the lantern on the sand, and waited.
"You see, Rock Cod, there are some things in this world that cut both ways. To do a great good we must do a little wrong—that's not quite my own phrase, though it expresses my sentiments—but in anything you do, never do it by halves."
"I ain't 'ad no schoolin' meself," answered the fisherman. "I don't take much account of books; but when there's a drop o' rum handy, I'm with you."
The Italian came up the beach with the liquor.
"Here's what'll put us all in good nick," said Tresco, as he drew the cork of the bottle, and poured some of the spirit into the pannikin. "Here's luck," and he drank his dram at a draught.
He generously replenished the cup, and handed it to Rock Cod.
"Well, cap'n," said that puzzled barnacle, "there's things I don't understand, but here's fun." He took his liquor at a gulp, and passed the pannikin to his mate.
It took the Italian no time to catch the drift that matters were taking.
"You expecta make me drunk, eh, signor? You steala ze mail an' carry him away, eh? Alla right, you try."
"Now, look here," said Tresco; "it's this way. These bags want re-sorting—and I'm going to do it. If in the sorting I come across anything of importance, that's my business. If, on the other hand, you happen across anything that you require, but which seems thrown away on other folks, that's your business. If you don't like the bargain, you can both go and sit in the boat."
Neither man moved. It was evident that Crookenden had chosen his tools circumspectly.
"Very good," said Tresco, "you have the run of your fingers over this mail when I have re-sorted it, provided you keep your heads shut when you get back to town. Is it a bargain?"
He held out his hand.
Rock Cod was the first to take it. He said:—
"It's a bargain, boss."
Macaroni followed suit. "Alla right," he said. "I reef in alonga you an' Rocka Codda. I no spik."
So the compact was made.
Seizing the nearest bag, Tresco cut its fastenings, and emptied its contents on the sand.
"Now, as I pass them over to you," said he, seating himself beside the heap of letters, "you can open such as you think were meant for you, but got misdirected by mistake to persons of no account. But burn 'em afterwards."
He put a match to the driftwood collected by the Italian. "Those that don't interest you, gentlemen, be good enough to put back into the bag."
His hands were quick, his eyes were quicker. He knew well what to look for. As he glanced at the letters, he threw them over to his accomplices, till in a short time there was in front of them a bigger pile of correspondence than had been delivered to them previously in the course of their conjoint lives.
The goldsmith seldom opened a letter, and then only when he was in doubt as to whether or not it was posted by the Jewish merchant. The fishermen opened at random the missives in front of them, in the hope of finding they knew not what, but always in disappointment and disgust.
At length, however, the Italian gave a cry of joy. "I have heem. Whata zat, Rocka Codda?" He held a bank-note before his mate's eyes. "Zat five pound, my boy. Soon I get some more, eh? Alla right."
Tresco put a letter into the breast-pocket of his coat. It's envelope bore on its back the printed legend, "Joseph Varnhagen, General Merchant, Timber Town."
So the ransacking of the outgoing mail went forward. Now another bag was opened, but, as it contained nothing else but newspapers and small packages, the goldsmith desired to leave it intact. But not so his accomplices. They therein saw the chief source of their payment. Insisting on their right under the bargain, the sand in front of them was soon strewn with litter.
Tresco, in the meantime, had directed his attention to another bag, which contained nothing but correspondence, and evidently he had found what he was most earnestly in search of, for he frequently expressed his delight as he happened across some document which he thrust into his bosom.
In this way the mail was soon rummaged, and without waiting for the other two men to finish their search, the goldsmith began to reseal the bags. First, he took from his pocket the counterfeit matrix which had cost him so much labour to fashion. Next, he took some string, similar to that which he had previously cut, and with it he retied the necks of the bags he had opened. With the help of a lighted match, he covered the knotted strings, first of one bag and then of another, with melted sealing-wax, which he impressed with the counterfeit seal.
His companions watched the process with such interest that, forgetting for a time their search amongst the chattels of other people, they gave their whole attention to the process of resealing the bags.
"Very 'andy with his fingers, ain't 'e, Macaroni?—even if 'e is a bit un'andy in a boat." Confederacy in crime had bred a familiarity which brought the goldsmith down to the level of his co-operators.
All the bags were now sealed up, excepting the one which the fishermen had last ravaged, and the contents of which lay scattered on the sand.
"This one will be considerably smaller than it useter was," remarked Tresco, as he replaced the unopened packets in the bag.
"Hi! stoppa!" cried Macaroni, "Rocka Codda an' me wanta finish him."
"And leave me to hand in an empty bag? Most sapient Macaroni, under your own guidance you would not keep out of gaol a fortnight: Nature did not equip you for a career in crime."
Tresco deftly sealed up the last bag, and then said, "Chuck all the odds and ends into the fire, and be careful not to leave a scrap unburned: then we will drink to our continued success."
The fire blazed up fiercely as the torn packages, envelopes, and letters were thrown upon its embers. The goldsmith groped about, and examined the sand for the least vestige of paper which might form a clue to their crime, but when he was satisfied that everything had been picked up, he returned to the fire, and watched the bright flames as they leapt heavenwards.
His comrades were dividing their spoil.
"I think, boss," said Rock Cod, "the best of the catch must ha' fell to your share: me and my mate don't seem to have mor'n ten pound between us, not countin' truck worth p'r'aps another five."
"So far as I am concerned, my man,"—Tresco used the unction of tone and the dignity of manner that he loved so well—"I am but an agent. I take nothing except a few letters, some of which I have not even opened."
The Italian burst out laughing. "You ze boss? You conducta ze holy show, eh? Alla right. But you take nuzzing. Rocka Codda an' Macaroni get ten pound, fifteen pound; an' you get nuzzing."
"Information is what I get," said Tresco. "But, then, information is the soul of business. Information is sometimes more valuable than a gold-mine. Therefore, in getting, get information: it will help you to untold wealth. My object, you see, is knowledge, for which I hunger and thirst. I search for it by night as well as by day. Therefore, gentlemen, before we quit the scene of our midnight labours, let us drink to the acquisition of knowledge."
Rock Cod and Macaroni did not know what he meant, but they drank rum from the pannikin with the greatest good-will. After which, Benjamin scattered the embers of the fire, which quickly died out, and then the three men shoved the boat off and pulled towards the lights of the steamer.
On board the barque Captain Sartoris paced the poop-deck in solitude. Bored to death with the monotony of life in quarantine, the smallest event was to him a matter of interest. He had marked the fire on the beach, and had even noticed the figures which had moved about it. How many men there were he could not tell, but after the fire went out, and a boat passed to starboard of the barque and made for the steamer which lay outside her, he remarked to himself that it was very late at night for a boat to be pulling from the shore. But at that moment a head was put out of the companion, and a voice called him in pidgin English to go down. He went below, and stood beside the sick captain, whose mind was wandering, and whose spirit was restless in its lodging. He watched the gasping form, and marked the nervous fingers as they clutched at the counterpane as hour after hour went by, till just as the dawn was breaking a quietness stole over the attenuated form, and with a slight tremour the spirit broke from its imprisonment, and death lay before Sartoris in the bunk. Then he went on deck, and breathed the pure air of the morning.
Dealing Mostly with Money.
Pilot Summerhayes stood in his garden, with that look on his face which a guilty schoolboy wears when the eye of his master is upon him.
In his hand he held a letter, at which he glanced furtively, as if he feared to be caught in the act of reading, although the only eyes that possibly could have detected him were those of two sparrows that were discussing the purple berries of the Portuguese laurel which grew near by.
"'I enclose the usual half-yearly allowance of L250.'" The Pilot was reading from the letter. "Damnation take him and his allowance!" ejaculated the irascible old sailor, which was a strange anathema to hurl at the giver of so substantial a sum of money. "I suppose he thinks to make me beholden to him: I suppose he thinks me as poor as a church-rat, and, therefore, I'm to be thankful for mercies received—his mercies—and say what a benefactor he is, what a generous brother. Bah! it makes me sicker than ever to think of him." He glanced at the letter, and read, "'Hoping that this small sum is sufficient for yourself and my very dear niece, to whom I ask to be most kindly remembered, I remain your affectionate brother, Silas Summerhayes.'" A most brotherly epistle, containing filial expressions, and indicating a bountiful spirit; and yet upon reading it the Pilot swore deep and dreadful oaths which cannot be recorded.
Every six months, for at least fifteen years, he had received a similar letter, expressing in the same affectionate terms the love of his brother Silas, which was accentuated by a like draft for L250, and yet the Pilot had persistently cursed the receipt of each letter.
There was a footstep on the verandah behind him. With a start the old man thrust the epistle and draft into his pocket, and stood, with a look on his face as black as thunder, confronting almost defiantly his charming daughter.
"Have you got your letters, father? I heard the postman's knock." As she spoke, Rose looked rather anxiously at her frowning parent. "Good news, I hope—the English mail arrived last night."
"I daresay it did, my gal," growled the Pilot. "But I don't see what you and me have to do with England, seeing we've quit it these fifteen years."
"But we were born there! Surely people should think affectionately of their native country."
"But we won't die there, please God—at least, I won't, if I can help it. You'll not need to, I hope. We're colonials: this is our country."
The girl turned to go indoors, but, a sudden impulse seizing her, she put her arms around the old man's neck, and kissed his weather-beaten cheek.
"What's been troubling you, father? I'll drive the worry away." She held his rough hand in hers, and waited for him to speak.
"You're a good gal, Rosebud; you're a great comfort. But, Lord bless me, you're as sensitive as a young fawn. There's nothing the matter with me, except when now and again I get a fit of the blues; but you've drove 'em away, da'rter; you've drove 'em clean away. Now, just you run in and attend to your house; and leave me to go into town, where I've a bit of business to attend to—there's a good gal." He kissed his daughter's smooth, white forehead, and she ran indoors, smiling and happy.
The Pilot resettled the peaked cap on his head, stumped down the garden-path, and passed out of his gate and along the road. His steps led him to the main street of the town, where he entered the Kangaroo Bank, the glass doors of which swung noiselessly behind him, and he stood in front of the exquisite clerk of Semitic origin, who dealt out and received over the broad counter the enormous wealth of the opulent institution.
"Good morning, Captain Summerhayes."
"'Mornin'," said the Pilot, as he fumbled in the inside pocket of his coat.
At length he drew out the draft and handed it to the clerk, who turned it over, and said, "Please endorse it."
The old sailor took a pen, and with infinite care wrote his name on the back of the document.
When the clerk was satisfied that everything was in order, he said, "Two-hundred-and-fifty pounds. How will you take it, Captain?"
"I don't want to take it," answered the Pilot gruffly. "I'll put it along with the other."
"You wish to deposit it?" said the clerk. "Certainly. You'll need a form."
He drew a printed slip from a box on the counter, and filled it in. "Sign here, please," he said, indicating with his finger the place of signature.
"No, no," said the old man, evidently annoyed. "You've made it out in my name. It should be in my da'rter's, like all the rest have been." The clerk made the necessary alteration, and the Pilot signed.
"If you call in this afternoon, I'll give you the deposit receipt," said the clerk.
"Now, really, young man, an't that a bit slow? D'you think I've got nothing better to do than to dodge up and down from the port, waitin' for your precious receipts?"
The clerk looked surprised that anyone should question his dictum for one moment, but he immediately handed the signed form to a neighbouring clerk for transmission to the manager, or to some functionary only one degree less omnipotent.
"And while we're waiting," said the Pilot, "I'd be much obliged if you'd show me the book where you keep the record of all the monies I've put into your bank."
The clerk conferred with another clerk, who went off somewhere and returned with a heavy tome, which he placed with a bang on the counter.
The Jew turned over the broad leaves with a great rustling. "This inspection of our books is purely optional with us, Captain, but with an old customer like yourself we waive our prerogative."
"Very han'some of you, very han'some indeed. How does she stand?"
The clerk ran his fingers down a long column of figures, and said, "There are a number of deposits in Miss Rose's name. Shall I read the amounts?"
"I've got the receipts in my strong-box. All I want is the total."
"Ten thousand, five hundred pounds," said the clerk.
"And there's this here new lot," said the Pilot.
"Ten thousand, seven hundred and fifty altogether."
The Pilot drew the heavy account book towards him, and verified the clerk's statements. Then he made a note of the sum total, and said, "I'll take that last receipt now, if it's ready."
The clerk reached over to a table, where the paper had been placed by a fellow clerk, and handed it to the gruff old sailor.
"Thank you," said Pilot Summerhayes. "Now I can verify the whole caboodle at my leisure, though I hate figures as the devil hates holy water." He placed the receipt in his inside pocket and buttoned up his coat. "Good-day," he said, as he turned to go.
"I wish you good morning, Captain."
The Pilot glanced back; his face wearing a look of amusement, as though he thought the clerk's effusiveness was too good to be true. Then he nodded, gave a little chuckle, and walked out through the swinging, glass doors.
The Jew watched the bulky sailor as he moved slowly, like a ship leaving port in heavy weather, with many a lurch and much tacking against an adverse wind. By the expression on the Semitic face you might have thought that Isaac Zahn was beholding some new and interesting object of natural history, instead of a ponderous and grumpy old sailor, who seemed to doubt somewhat the bona fides of the Kangaroo Bank. But the truth was that the young man was dazzled by the personality of one who might command such wealth; it had suddenly dawned on his calculating mind that a large sum of money was standing in the name of Rose Summerhayes; he realised with the clearness of a revelation that there were other fish than Rachel Varnhagen in the sea of matrimony.
The witching hour of lunch was near at hand. Isaac glanced at the clock, the hands of which pointed to five minutes to twelve. As soon as the clock above the Post Office sounded the hour, he left the counter, which was immediately occupied by another clerk, and going to a little room in the rear of the big building, he titivated his person before a small looking-glass that hung on the wall, and then, putting on his immaculate hat, he turned his back upon the cares of business for one hour.
His steps led him not in the direction of his victuals, but towards the warehouse of Joseph Varnhagen. There was no hurry in his gait; he sauntered down the street, his eyes observing everything, and with a look of patronising good humour on his dark face, as though he would say, "Really, you people are most amusing. Your style's awful, but I put up with it because you know no better."
He reached the door of Varnhagen's store in precisely the same frame of mind. The grimy, match-lined walls of the merchant's untidy office, the litter of odds and ends upon the floor, the antiquated safe which stood in one corner, all aroused his pity and contempt.
The old Jew came waddling from the back of the store, his body ovoid, his bald head perspiring with the exertion he had put himself to in moving a chest of tea.
"Well, my noble, vat you want to-day?" he asked, as he waddled to his office-table, and placed upon it a packet of tea, intended for a sample.
"I just looked round to see how you were bobbing up."
"Bobbin' up, vas it? I don't bob up much better for seein' you. Good cracious! I vas almost dead, with Packett ill with fever or sometings from that ship outside, and me doin' all his vork and mine as well. Don't stand round in my vay, ven you see I'm pizzy!" Young Isaac leisurely took a seat by the safe, lighted a cigarette, and looked on amusedly at the merchant's flurry.
"You try to do too much," he said. "You're too anxious to save wages. What you want is a partner to keep your books, a young man with energy who will look after your interests—and his own. You're just wearing yourself to skin and bone; soon you'll go into a decline, and drop off the hooks."
"Eh? Vat? A decline you call it? Me? Do I look like it?"
The fat little man stood upright, and patted his rotund person.
"It's the wear and tear of mind that I fear will be fatal to you. You have brain-tire written large over every feature. I think you ought to see a doctor and get a nerve tonic. This fear of dying a pauper is rapidly killing you, and who then will fill your shoes?"
"My poy, there is one thing certain—you won't. I got too much sense. I know a smart feller when I see him, and you're altogetter too slow to please me."
"The really energetic man is the one who works with his brains, and leaves others to work with their hands."
"Oh! that's it, eh? Qvite a young Solomon! Vell, I do both."
"And you lose money in consequence."
"I losing money?"
"Yes, you. You're dropping behind fast. Crookenden and Co. are outstripping you in every line."
"Perhaps you see my books. Perhaps you see theirs."
"I see their accounts at the bank. I know what their turn-over is; I know yours. You're not in it."
"But they lose their cargo—the ship goes down."
"But they get the insurance, and send forward new orders and make arrangements with us for the consignors to draw on them. Why, they're running rings round you."
"Vell, how can I help it? My mail never come—I don't know vat my beobles are doing. But I send orders, too."
"For how much?"
"Dat's my pizz'ness."
"And this is mine." The clerk took a sheet of paper from his pocket.
"I don't want to know your pizz'ness."
"But you'd like to know C. and Co.'s."
"Qvite right. But you know it—perhaps you know the Devil's pizz'ness, too."
Young Zahn laughed.
"I wish I did," he said.
"Vell, young mans, you're getting pretty near it; you're getting on that vay."
"That's why it would be wise to take me into your business."
"I dare say; but all you vant is to marry my taughter Rachel."
"I want to marry her, that's true, but there are plenty of fish in the sea."
"And there are plenty other pizz'ness besides mine. You haf my answer."
The bank-clerk got up. "What I propose is for your good as well as mine. I don't want to ruin you; I want to see you prosper."
"You ruin me? How do you do that? If I change my bank, how do you affect me?"
"But you would have to pay off your overdraft first."
"That vill be ven the manager pleases—but as for his puppy clerk, dressed like a voman's tailor, get out of this!"
The young man stood, smiling, by the door; but old Varnhagen, enacting again the little drama of Luther and the Devil, hurled the big office ink-pot at the scheming Isaac with full force.
The clerk ducked his head and ran, but the missile had struck him under the chin, and his immaculate person was bespattered from shirt-collar to mouse-coloured spats with violet copying-ink. In this deplorable state he was forced to pass through the streets, a spectacle for tittering shop-girls and laughing tradesmen, that he might gain the seclusion of his single room, which lay somewhere in the back premises of the Kangaroo Bank.
The Wages of Sin.
As Pilot Summerhayes turned up the street, after having deposited his money, he might well have passed the goldsmith, hurrying towards the warehouse of Crookenden and Co. to receive the wages of his sin.
In Tresco's pocket was the intercepted correspondence, upon his face was a look of happiness and self-contentment. He walked boldly into the warehouse where, in a big office, glazed, partitioned, and ramparted with a mighty counter, was a small army of clerks, who, loyal to their master, stood ready to pillage the goldsmith of every halfpenny he possessed.
But, with his blandest smile, Benjamin asked one of these formidable mercenaries whether Mr. Crookenden was within. He was ushered immediately into the presence of that great personage, before whom the conducting clerk was but as a crushed worm; and there, with a self-possession truly remarkable, the goldsmith seated himself in a comfortable chair and beamed cherubically at the merchant, though in his sinful heart he felt much as if he were a cross between a pirate and a forger.
"Ah! you have brought my papers?" said the merchant.
"I've brought my papers," said the goldsmith, still smiling.
Crookenden chuckled. "Yes, yes," he said, "quite right, quite right. They are yours till you are paid for them. Let me see: I gave you L50 in advance—there's another L50 to follow, and then we are quits."
"Another hundred-and-fifty," said Tresco.
"Eh? What? How's that? We said a hundred, all told."
"Two hundred," said Tresco.
"No, no, sir. I tell you it was a hundred."
"All right," said Tresco, "I shall retain possession of the letters, which I can post by the next mail or return to Mr. Varnhagen, just as I think fit."
The merchant rose in his chair, and glared at the goldsmith.
"What!" cried Tresco. "You'll turn dog? Complete your part of the bargain. Do you think I've put my head into a noose on your account for nothing? D'you think I went out last night because I loved you? No, sir, I want my money. I happen to need money. I've half a mind to make it two-hundred-and-fifty; and I would, if I hadn't that honour which is said to exist among thieves. We'll say one-hundred-and-fifty, and cry quits."
"Do you think you have me in your hands?"
"I don't think," replied the cunning goldsmith. "I know I've got you. But I'll be magnanimous—I'll take L150. No, L160—I must pay the boatmen—and then I'll say no more about the affair. It shall be buried in the oblivion of my breast, it shall be forgotten with the sins of my youth. I must ask you to be quick."
"Yes, as quick as you conveniently can."
"Would you order me about, sir?"
"Not exactly that, but I would urge you on a little faster. I would persuade you with the inevitable spur of fate."
The merchant put his hand on a bell which stood upon his table.
"That would be of no use," said Benjamin. "If you call fifty clerks and forcibly rob me of my correspondence, you gain nothing. Listen! Every clerk in this building would turn against you the moment he knew your true character; and before morning, every man, woman and child in Timber Town would know. And where would you be then? In gaol. D'you hear?—in gaol. Take up your pen. An insignificant difference of a paltry hundred pounds will solve the difficulty and give you all the comfort of a quiet mind."
"But what guarantee have I that after you have been paid you won't continue to blackmail me?"
"You cannot possibly have such a guarantee—it wouldn't be good for you. This business is going to chasten your soul, and make you mend your ways. It comes as a blessing in disguise. But so long as you don't refer to the matter, after you have paid me what you owe me, I shall bury the hatchet. I simply give you my word for that. If you don't care to take it, leave it: it makes no difference to me."
The fat little merchant fiddled nervously with the writing materials in front of him, and his hesitation seemed to have a most irritating effect upon the goldsmith, who rose from his chair, took his watch from his pocket, and walked to and fro.
"It's too much, too much," petulantly reiterated Mr. Crookenden. "It's not worth it, not the half of it."
"That's not my affair," retorted Tresco. "The bargain was for L200. I want the balance due."
"But how do I know you have the letters?" whined the merchant.
"Tut, tut! I'm surprised to hear such foolishness from an educated man. What you want will be forthcoming when you've drawn the cheque—take my word for that. But I'm tired of pottering round here." The goldsmith glanced at his watch. "I give you two minutes in which to decide. If you can't make up your mind, well, that's your funeral. At the end of that time I double the price of the letters, and if you want them at the new figure then you can come and ask for them."
He held his watch in his hand, and marked the fleeting moments.
The merchant sat, staring stonily at the table in front of him.
The brief moments soon passed; Tresco shut his watch with a click, and returned it to his pocket.
"Now," he said, taking up his hat, "I'll wish you good morning."
He was half-way to the door, when Crookenden cried, "Stop!" and reached for a pen, which he dipped in the ink.
"He, he!" he sniggered, "it's all right, Tresco—I only wanted to test you. You shall have the money. I can see you're a staunch man such as I can depend on."
He rose suddenly, and went to the big safe which stood against the wall, and from it he took a cash-box, which he placed on the table.
"Upon consideration," he said, "I have decided to pay you in cash—it's far safer for both parties."
He counted out a number of bank notes, which he handed to the goldsmith.
Tresco put down his hat, put on his spectacles, and counted the money. "Ten tens are a hundred, ten fives are fifty, ten ones are ten," he said. "Perfectly correct." He put his hand into the inner pocket of his coat, and drew out a packet, which was tied roughly with a piece of coarse string. "And here are the letters," he added, as he placed them on the table. Then he put the money into his pocket.
Crookenden opened the packet, and glanced at the letters.
Tresco had picked up his hat.
"I am satisfied," said the merchant. "Evidently you are a man of resource. But don't forget that in this matter we are dependent upon each other. I rely thoroughly on you, Tresco, thoroughly. Let us forget the little piece of play-acting of a few minutes ago. Let us be friends, I might say comrades."
"Certainly, sir. I do so with pleasure."
"But for the future," continued Crookenden, "we had better not appear too friendly in public, not for six months or so."
"Certainly not, not too friendly in public," Benjamin smiled his blandest, "not for at least six months. But any communication sent me by post will be sure to find me, unless it is intercepted by some unscrupulous person. For six months, Mr. Crookenden, I bid you adieu."
The merchant sniggered again, and Benjamin walked out of the room.
Then Crookenden rang his bell. To the clerk who answered it, he said:
"You saw that man go out of my office, Mr. Smithers?"
"If ever he comes again to see me, tell him I'm engaged, or not in. I won't see him—he's a bad stamp of man, a most ungrateful man, a man I should be sorry to have any dealings with, a man who is likely to get into serious trouble before he is done, a man whom I advise all my young men to steer clear of, one of the most unsatisfactory men it has been my misfortune to meet."
"That's all, Mr. Smithers," said the head of the firm. "I like my young men to be kept from questionable associates; I like them to have the benefit of my experience. I shall do my best to preserve them from the evil influence of such persons as the man I have referred to. That will do. You may go, Mr. Smithers."
Meanwhile, Benjamin Tresco was striding down the street in the direction of his shop; his speed accelerated by a wicked feeling of triumph, and his face beaming with an acute appreciation of the ridiculous scene in which he had played so prominent a part.
"Hi-yi!" he exclaimed exultingly, as he burst into the little room at the back of his shop, where the Prospector was waiting for him, "the man with whips of money would outwit Benjamin, and the man with the money-bags was forced to shell out. Bill, my most esteemed pal, the rich man would rob the poor, but that poor man was Benjamin, your redoubtable friend Benjamin Tresco, and the man who was dripping with gold got, metaphorically speaking, biffed on the boko. Observe, my esteemed and trusty pal, observe the proceeds of my cunning."
He threw the whole of his money on the table.
"Help yourself," he cried. "Take as much as you please: all I ask is the sum of ten pounds to settle a little account which will be very pressing this evening at eight o'clock, when a gentleman named Rock Cod and his estimable mate, Macaroni Joe, are dead sure to roll up, expectant."
The digger, who, in spite of his return to the regions of civilisation, retained his wildly hirsute appearance, slowly counted the notes.
"I make it a hundred-and-sixty," he said.
"That's right," said Tresco: "there's sixty-seven for you, and the balance for me."
Bill took out the two IOUs, and placed them on the table. They totalled L117, of which Benjamin had paid L50.
"I guess," said the Prospector, "that sixty-seven'll square it." He carefully counted out that sum, and put it in his pocket.
Benjamin counted the balance, and made a mental calculation. "Ninety-three pounds," he said, "and ten of that goes to my respectable friends, Rock Cod and Macaroni. That leaves me the enormous sum of eighty-three pounds. After tearing round the town for three solid days, raising the wind for all I'm worth and almost breaking my credit, this is all I possess. That's what comes of going out to spend a quiet evening in the company of Fortunatus Bill; that's what comes of backing my luck against ruffians with loaded dice and lumps on their necks."
"Have you seen them devils since?" asked the Prospector.
"I've been far too busy scrapin' together this bit of cash to take notice of folks," said Benjamin, as he tore up the IOUs and threw them into the fireplace. "It's no good crying over spilt milk or money lost at play. The thing is for you to go back to the bush, and make good your promise."
"I'm going to-morrow mornin'. I've got the missus's money, which I'll send by draft, and then I'll go and square up my bill at the hotel."
"And then," said Benjamin, "fetch your swag, and bunk here to-night. It'll be a most convenient plan."
"We're mates," said the Prospector. "You've stood by me and done the 'an'some, an' I'll stand by you and return the compliment. An' it's my hope we'll both be rich men before many weeks are out."
"That's so," said Benjamin. "Your hand on it."
The digger held out his horny, begrimed paw, which the goldsmith grasped with a solemnity befitting the occasion.
"You'll need a miner's right," said the digger.
"I've got one," said Tresco. "Number 76032, all in order, entitling me to the richest claim in this country."
"I'll see, mate, that it's as rich as my own, and that's saying a wonderful deal."
"Damme, I'll come with you straight away!"
"Right, mate; come along."
"We'll start before dawn."
"I'll shut the shop, and prospect along with you."
"That's the way of it. You an' me'll be mates right through; and we'll paint this town red for a week when we've made our pile."
"Jake! Drat that boy; where is he? Jake, come here."
The shock-headed youth came running from the back yard, where he was chopping wood.
"Me and this gentleman," said his master, "are going for a little excursion. We start to-morrow morning. See? I was thinking of closing the shop, but I've decided to leave you in charge till I return."
The lad stood with his hands in his pockets, and blew a long, shrill whistle. "Of all the tight corners I was ever in," he said, "this takes the cake. I'll want a rise in wages—look at the responsibility, boss."
The goldsmith laughed. "All right," he said. "You shall have ten shillings a week extra while I'm away; and if we have luck, Jake, I'll make it a pound."
"Right-oh! I'll take all the responsibility that comes along. I'll get fat on it. And when you come back, you'll find the business doubled, and the reputation of B. Tresco increased. It'll probably end in you taking me in as partner—but I don't care: it's all the same to me."
The goldsmith made an attempt to box the boy's ear, but Jake dodged his blow.
"That's your game, is it?" exclaimed the young rogue. "Bash me about, will you? All right—I'll set up in opposition!"
He didn't wait for the result of this remark, but with a sudden dart he passed like a streak of lightning through the doorway, and fled into the street.
Rachel Varnhagen walked down the main street of Timber Town, with the same bustling gait, the same radiant face, the same air of possessing the whole earth, as when the reader first met her. As she passed the Kangaroo Bank she paused, and peered through the glass doors; but, receiving no responsive glance from the immaculately attired Isaac, who stood at the counter counting out his money, she continued her way towards her father's place of business, where she found the rotund merchant in a most unusual state of excitement.
"Now, vat you come bothering me this morning, Rachel? Can't you see I'm pizzy?"
"I want a cheque, father."
"You get no cheque from me this morning, my child. I've got poor all of a sudden. I've got no cheques for nopody."
"But I have to get things for the house. We want a new gourmet boiler—you know you won't touch currie made in a frying-pan—a steamer for potatoes, and half-a-dozen table-knives."
"Don't we haff no credit? What goot is my name, if you can't get stew-pans without money? Here I am, with no invoices, my orders ignored as if I was a pauper, and my whole piz'ness at a standstill. Not one single letter do I get, not one. I want a hundred thousand things. I send my orders months and months ago, and I get no reply. My trade is all going to that tam feller, Crookenden! And you come, and ask me for money. Vhen I go along to the Post Master, he kvestion me like a criminal, and pring the Police Sergeant as if I vas a thief. I tell him I nefer rob mail-bags. I tell him if other peoples lose letters, I lose them too. I know nothing aboudt it. I tell him the rascal man is Crookenden and Co.—he should take him to prison: he contracts for mails and nefer delivers my letters. I tell him Crookenden and Co. is the criminal, not me. Then he laff, but that does not gif me my letters."
During this harangue, Rachel had stood, the mute but pretty picture of astonishment.
"But, father," she said, "I want to go to the bank. I want to speak to Isaac awfully, and how can I go in there without some excuse!"
"I'll gif you the exguse to keep out! I tell you somethings which will make you leave that young man alone. He nefer loaf you, Rachel—he loaf only my money."
"Father! this worry about the mail has turned you silly."
"Oh, yes, I'm silly when I throw the ink-pot at him. I've gone mad when I kick him out of my shop. You speak to that young man nefer again, Rachel, my tear; you nefer look at him. Then, by-and-by, I marry you to the mos' peautiful young man with the mos' loafly moustache and whiskers. You leaf it to your poor old father. He'll choose you a good husband. When I was a young man I consult with my father, and I marry your scharming mamma, and you, my tear Rachel, are the peautiful result. Eh? my tear."
The old man took his daughter's face between his fat hands, and kissed her on both cheeks.
"You silly old goose," said Rachel, tenderly, "you seem to think I have no sense. I'm not going to marry Isaac yet—there can't be any harm in speaking to him. I'm only engaged. Why should you be frightened if I flirt a little with him? You seem to think a girl should be made of cast-iron, and just wait till her father finds a husband for her. You're buried up to your eyes in invoices and bills of lading and stupid, worrying things that drive you cranky, and you never give a thought to my future. What's to become of me, if I don't look out for myself? Goodness knows! there are few enough men in the town that I could marry; and because I pick out one for myself, you storm and rage as if I was thinking of marrying a convict."
"Young Zahn is worse: he is the worst rogue I ever see. He come in here to bully me into making him my partner. He threatens to tell my piz'ness to Crookenden and Co. I tell him, 'You do it, my poy. I schange my account, and tell your manager why.' That young man's too smart: soon he find himself in gaol. If my tear little Rachel marries a criminal, what would become of her poor old father? My tear, my tarling, you make me die with grief! But wait till the right young man comes along, then I gif you my blessing and two thousand pounds. But I gif you not von penny if you marry young Zahn."
The tears were now standing in Rachel's pretty eyes, and she looked the picture of grief.
"I never do anything, but you blame me," she sobbed. "When I wish to do a thing, you always say it's bad. You don't love me!" And she burst into a flood of tears.
"Rachel! Rachel! I gafe you the gold watch; and that bill came to thirty-three pounds. I gif you everything, and when I tell you not to run after a bad young feller, you say I nefer loaf you. Rachel, you are cruel; you make your father's heart bleed; you stab me here"—he pointed with his fat forefinger to the middle of his waistcoat—"you stab me here"—he placed his finger on his forehead. "You show no loaf, no consideration. You make me most unhappy. You're a naughty girl!"
The old fellow was almost crying. Rachel put her arms about his neck, and pressed his corpulent person with affection.
"Father, I'll be good. I know I'm very bad. But I love you, father. I'll never cause you any sorrow again. I'll do everything you tell me. I won't gad about so much; I'll stop at home more. I will, father; I really will."
"My tear Rachel! My loafly!" The old man was holding his pretty daughter at arm's length, and was gazing at her with parental fondness. "You are my peautiful, tear, goot, little girl."
Again her arms were flung round his neck. Again she kissed his bristly cheeks with her ruby-red lips. "You are an old dear," she exclaimed. "You're the kindest old governor going."
"You loaf your old father?"
"Of course I do. But I do—I do so want a small cheque. I must have it for the house."
"You'll always loaf your father, Rachel?"
"Always." She renewed her affectionate embraces.
"You shall have a little one—not so big as when my ship comes home, not so big as I'd like, but enough to show that I loaf you, Rachel."
He let her lead him to his desk, and there he sat and wrote a cheque which Rachel took gladly. She gave him one more kiss, and said, "You dear, good, kind old party; your little Rachel's awfully pleased," and gaily tripped from the dingy office into the sunny street.
Moonlight and Scarlett were glad with the delight of success, for inside their tent, which was pitched beside Bush Robin Creek, lay almost as much gold as one of them could conveniently carry to Timber Town.
They had searched the rocky sides of the gorge where they had first found gold, and its ledges and crevices had proved to be exceedingly rich. Next, they had examined the upper reaches of the creek, and after selecting a place where the best "prospects" were to be found, they had determined to work the bottom of the river-bed. Their "claim" was pegged off, the water had been diverted, and the dam had been strengthened with boulders taken from the river-bed, and now, having placed their sluice-boxes in position, they were about to have their first "washing up."
As they sat, and ate their simple fare—"damper" baked on the red-hot embers of their fire, a pigeon which Scarlett had shot that morning, and tea—their conversation was of their "claim."
"What do you think it will go?"
"The dirt in the creek is rich enough, but what's in the flat nobody can say. There may be richer gold in some of the higher terraces than down here. I've known such cases."
At the place where they were camped, the valley had been, at some distant period, a lake which had subsided after depositing a rich layer of silt, through which the stream had cut its way subsequently. Over this rich alluvial deposit the forest had spread luxuriantly, and it was only the skill of the experienced prospector that could discover the possibilities of the enormous stretches of river silt which Nature had so carefully hidden beneath the tangled, well-nigh impenetrable forest.
"The river is rich," continued Moonlight, "that we know. Possibly it deposited gold on these flats for ages. If that is so, this valley will be one of the biggest 'fields' yet developed. What we must do first is to test the bottom of the old lake; therefore, as soon as we have taken the best of the gold out of the river, I propose to 'sink' on the terraces till I find the rich deposit."
"Perhaps what we are getting now has come from the terraces above," said Jack.
"I think not."
"Where does it come from then?"
"I can't say, unless it is from some reef in the ranges. You must not forget that there's the lower end of the valley to be prospected yet—we have done nothing below the gorge."
Talking thus, they ate their "damper" and stewed pigeon, and drank their "billy" tea. Then they lit their pipes, and strolled towards the scene of their labours.
The place chosen for the workings was selected by circumstance rather than by the diggers. At this particular point of its course there had been some hesitation on the part of the river in choosing its bed, and with but a little coaxing it had been diverted into an old channel—which evident signs showed to be utilised as an overflow in time of flood—and thus by a circuitous route it found its way to the mouth of the gorge.
All was ready for the momentous operation of washing up, and the men's minds were full of expectation.
The bottom of fine silt, which had been laid bare when the boulders had been removed, stood piled on the bank, so as to be out of harm's way in case the river burst through the dam. Into the old bed a trickle of water ran through the sluice-boxes. These were set in the dry bed of the stream, and were connected with the creek by a water-race. They were each twelve feet in length, and consisted of a bottom and two sides, into which fitted neatly a twelve-foot board, pierced with a number of auger-holes. These boxes could be joined one to another, and the line of them could thus be prolonged indefinitely. The wash-dirt would be shovelled in at the top end, and the water, flowing down the "race," would carry it over the boxes, till it was washed out at the lower end, leaving behind a deposit of gold, which, owing to its specific gravity, would lodge in the auger-holes.
Moonlight went to the head of the "race," down which presently the water rushed, and rippled through the sluice-boxes. Next, he threw a shovelful of wash-dirt into the lower part of the "race," and soon its particles were swept through the sluice, and another shovelful followed.
When Moonlight tired, Scarlett relieved him, and so, working turn and turn about, after an hour they could see in the auger-holes a small yellow deposit: in the uppermost holes an appreciable quantity, and in the lower ones but a few grains.
"It's all right," said Moonlight, "we've struck it." He looked at the great heaps of wash-dirt on the bank, and his eyes shone with satisfaction.
"Do you think the dam will hold?" asked Scarlett of the experienced digger.
"It's safe enough till we get a 'fresh'," was the reply. Moonlight glanced at the dripping rampart, composed of tree-trunks and stones. "But even if there does happen to be a flood, and the dam bursts," he added, "we've still got the 'dirt' high and dry. But we shall have warning enough, I expect, to save the 'race' and sluice-boxes."
"It meant double handling to take out the wash-dirt before we started to wash up," said Scarlett, "but I'm glad we did it."
"Once, on the Greenstone," said Moonlight, "we were working from the bed of the creek. There came a real old-man flood which carried everything away, and when we cleaned out the bed again, there wasn't so much as a barrowful of gold-bearing dirt left behind. Once bitten, twice shy."
If the process was monotonous, it had the advantage of being simple. The men slowly shovelled the earth into the last length of the "race," and the running water did the rest. In the evening, a big pile of "tailings" was heaped up at the foot of the sluice, and as some of the auger-holes were half-filled with gold, Moonlight gave the word for cleaning out the boxes.
The water from the dam was cut off, leaving but a trickle running through the boxes. The false bottoms were then taken out of the sluice, and upon the floors of the boxes innumerable little heaps of gold lay exposed to the miners' delighted eyes.
The heavy gold, caught before it had reached the first sluice-box, lay at the lower end of the "race." To separate the small quantity of grit that remained with the gold, the diggers held the rich little heaps claw-wise with their fingers, while the rippling water ran through them. Thus the gold was left pure, and with the blade of a sheath-knife, it was easily transferred to the big tin dish.
"What weight?" asked Jack, as he lifted the precious load.
Moonlight solemnly took the "pan" from his mate. "One-fifty to one-sixty ounces," he said oracularly. His gaze wandered to the heap of wash-dirt which remained. "We've washed about one-sixth," he said. "Six times one-fifty is nine hundred. We'll say, roughly, L4 an ounce: that gives us something like L3600 from that heap."
As night was now approaching, they walked slowly towards their tent, carrying their richly-laden dish with them. Sitting in the tent-door, with their backs to the dark forest and their heads bent over the gold, they transferred the precious contents of the dish to a strong chamois-leather bag. Moonlight held open the mouth of the receptacle, and watched the process eagerly. About half the pleasant task was done, when suddenly a voice behind them said, "Who the blazes are you?"
Turning quickly, they saw standing behind them two men who had emerged from the forest.
Seizing an axe which lay beside him, Moonlight assumed an attitude of defence. Scarlett, who was weaponless, stood firm and rigid, ready for an onslaught.
"You seem to have struck it," said the newcomer who had spoken, his greedy eyes peering at the dish. "Do put down that axe, mate. We ain't bushrangers."
Moonlight lowered the head of his weapon, and said, "Yes, we've got the colour."
"Blow me if it ain't my friend Moonlight!" exclaimed the second intruder, advancing towards the diggers. "How's yerself?"
"Nicely, thank you," replied Moonlight. "Come far to-day?"
"A matter of eight hours' tramp—but not so fer; the bush is mighty thick. This is my mate. Here, Ben, shake 'ands."
It was none other than Benjamin Tresco who came forward. As he lowered his "swag" to the ground, he said, smiling urbanely, "How de do? I reckon you've jumped our claim. But we bear no malice. We'll peg out another."
"This ain't ours," said the Prospector, "not by chalks. You're above the gorge, ain't you?"
"Yes," replied Moonlight, "I should reckon we must be a mile above it."
"Where I worked," continued Bill, "was more'n a mile below the gorge. What are you makin'?"
"A few pennyweights," responded Moonlight.
"It looks like it!" exclaimed the Prospector, glancing at the richly-laden dish. "Look 'ere, Ben: a few pennyweights, that's all—just makin' tucker. Poor devils!"
Moonlight laughed, and so did Scarlett.
"Well, we might do worse than put our pegs alongside theirs, eh, Ben?"
"Oceans worse," replied Tresco.
"Did you prospect the gorge?" asked Moonlight.
"I wasn't never in the gorge," said the Prospector. "The river was too high, all the time I was working; but there's been no rain for six weeks, so she's low now."
Tresco advanced with mock trepidation, and looked closely at the gold in the chamois-leather bag, which he lifted with assumed difficulty. "About half a hundredweight," he said. "How much more of this sort have you got?"
Moonlight ignored the question, but turning to the Prospector, he said, "I shouldn't have left till I'd fossicked that gorge, if I'd been you."
"Then you've been through it?" queried Bill.
"How did it pan out?"
"There was gold there."
"Make tucker, eh?" the Prospector laughed. "Well this'll be good enough for us. We'll put in our pegs above yours. But how you dropped on this field just gits over me. You couldn't have come straighter, not if I'd shown you the way myself."
"Instinct," replied Moonlight. "Instinct and the natural attraction of the magnet." He desired to take no credit for his own astuteness in prospecting.
Scarlett had so far said nothing, but he now invited the newcomers to eat, before they pitched their tent.
"No, no," said the Prospector, "you must be on pretty short commons—you must ha' bin out a fortnight and more. Me an' my mate'll provide the tucker."
"We are a bit short, and that's the truth," said Moonlight, "but we reckon on holding out till we've finished this wash-up, and then one of us'll have to fetch stores."
While Benjamin and his mate were unpacking their swags and Scarlett was lighting the fire, Moonlight transferred the rest of the gold from the dish to the leather bag.
When the four men sat down to their frugal meal of "billy" tea, boiled bacon, and "damper," they chatted and laughed like schoolboys.
"Ah!" exclaimed Tresco, as red flames of the fire shot toward the stars and illumined the gigantic trunks of the surrounding trees, "this is freedom and the charm of Nature. No blooming bills to meet, no bother about the orders of worrying customers, no everlasting bowing and scraping; all the charm of society, good-fellowship, confidence, and conversation, with none of the frills of so-called civilization. But that is not all. Added to this is the prospect of making a fortune in the morning. Now, that is what I call living."
A Den of Thieves.
Down a by-lane in the outskirts of Timber Town stood a dilapidated wooden cottage. Its windows lacked many panes, its walls were bare of paint, the shingles of its roof were rotten and scanty; it seemed uninhabitable and empty, and yet, as night fell, within it there burned a light. Moreover, there were other signs of life within its crazy walls, for when all without was quiet and dark, the door opened and a bare-headed man emerged.
"Carny!" he called.
A whistle sounded down the lane, and soon a figure advanced from the shadow of a hedge and stood in the light of the open door.
"We've only waited near an hour for you," said the first man. "If you've orders to be on time, be on time. D'you expect the whole push to dance attendance on you?"
"Now, Dolphin, draw it mild. That blame pretty girl at The Lucky Digger kept me, an' wouldn't let me go, though I told her I had a most important engagement."
"Petticoats an' our business don't go together," gruffly responded Dolphin. "Best give 'em a wide berth till we've finished our work here and got away."
The two men entered the house, and the door was shut.
At a bare, white-pine table sat two other men, the sour-faced Garstang and the young fellow who answered to the name of Sweet William.
"Come in, come in," said the latter, "and stop barrackin' like two old washerwomen. Keep yer breath to discuss the biz."
Dolphin and Carnac drew chairs to the table, on which stood a guttering candle, glued to the wood with its own grease.
"Charming residence," remarked Carnac, elegant in a black velvet coat, as he glanced round the bare and battered room.
"Sweet William Villa," said the young man. "I pay no rent; and mighty comfortable it is too, when you have a umberella to keep out the rain."
"Our business," said the pugnacious-looking Dolphin, "is to square up, which hasn't been done since we cleaned out the digger that William hocussed."
He drew a handful of notes and gold from his pocket, and placed it on the table.
"Gently," said Sweet William, who took Carnac's hat, and placed it over the money. "Wait till I fix my blind." Snatching a blanket from a bed made upon the bare floor, he hung it on two nails above the window, so as to effectually bar the inquisitive gaze of chance wayfarers. "Damme, a bloke would think you wanted to advertise the firm and publish our balance-sheet." Stepping down to the floor, he replaced Carnac's hat upon its owner's head, and said "Fire away."
Each man placed his money in front of him, and rendered his account. Then Dolphin took all the money, counted it, and divided it into four equal heaps, three of which he distributed, and one of which he retained.
"Fifty-seven quid," said Sweet William, when he had counted his money. "A very nice dividend for the week. I think I'll give up batching here, and live at The Lucky Digger and have a spree."
"Not much, William," broke in Dolphin. "Keep yourself in hand, my son. Wait till we've made our real haul and got away with the loot: then you can go on the burst till all's blue. Each man wants his wits about him, for the present."
"You mean the bank," said Carnac.
The leader of the gang nodded.
"I've fossicked around the premises," continued the gentleman in the velvet coat, "and I must confess that they're the most trifling push I ever saw. There's the manager, a feeble rat of a man; another fellow that's short-sighted and wears specs.; a boy, and the teller, a swell who wears gloves on his boots and looks as if he laced himself up in stays."
"I reckon there's a rusty old revolver hanging on a nail somewheres," remarked Garstang.
"Most likely," said Dolphin, "but our plan is to walk in comfortable and easy just before closing-time. I'll present a faked-up cheque which'll cause a consultation between the teller and the short-sighted party. In the meantime, Carnac will interview the manager about sending a draft to his wife in England. You, Garstang, will stand ready to bar the front door, and William will attend to the office-boy and the door at the back. Just as the clerks are talking about the cheque, I'll whip out my weapon and bail 'em up, and then the scheme will go like clock-work."
"But suppose there's a mob of customers in the place?" asked Garstang.
"A lot of harmless sheep!" replied Dolphin. "It'll be your duty to bail them up. There's a big strong-room at the back, well-ventilated, commodious, and dry. We'll hustle everybody into that, and you and William will stand guard over them. Then Carnac will bring the manager from his room, and with the persuasion of two pistols at his head the little old gentleman will no doubt do the civil in showing us where he stows his dollars. There'll be plenty of time: the bank will be closed just as in the ordinary course of things. We'll do the job thoroughly, and when we've cleaned the place out, we'll lock all the parties up in the strong-room, and quit by the back door as soon as it's dusk."
"Sounds O.K.," remarked Sweet William, "but there'll be a picnic before morning. I reckon we'll need to get away pretty sudden."
"That can be arranged in two ways," said Dolphin. "First, we can choose a day when a steamer is leaving port early in the evening, say, eight o'clock; or we can take to the bush, and make our way across country. I've turned over both plans in my mind, and I rather prefer the latter. But that is a point I leave to you—I'll fall in with the opinion of the majority."
"Yes," said Garstang, "it looks as if it must succeed: it looks as if it can't go wrong. Our leader Dolphin, the brains of the gang, has apparently fixed up everything; the details are all thought out; the men are ready and available, but——"
"But what?" asked Dolphin gruffly. "Are you going to back down? Frightened of getting a bit of lead from a rusty old revolver, eh?"
"It ain't that," replied the ugliest member of the gang, "but supposin' there's no money in the bloomin' bank, what then?"
A roar of laughter greeted his surmise.
"What d'you suppose the bank's for," asked Carnac, "if not to store up money?"
"Whips and whips of money," observed Sweet William, the stem of his lighted pipe between his teeth. "You go with a legitimate cheque for, say, L550, and you'd get it cashed all right."
"Certainly"; replied Garstang, "in notes. And that's where we'd fall in. Every number is known, and so soon as we tried to cash the dirty paper, we'd get lagged. Even if we passed 'em at pubs, we'd be traced. What we want is gold—nothing but gold. And I'd be surprised if they have a thousand sovereigns in the bank."
"If they have," remarked Dolphin, "you'll get two-fifty. Isn't that good enough?"
"That's it," retorted his troublesome follower, "there's considerable risk about the business, in spite of you fixing all the details so neat and easy. I ask, 'Is it good enough to get about ten years for the sake of L250?'"
"Just what I thought," exclaimed Dolphin. "You're a cock-tail. In your old age you've grown white-livered. I guess, Garstang, you'd better retire, and leave those to carry out the work who don't know what fear is."
"That's so," echoed Carnac, drumming the table with his white fingers.
"You don't ketch my meaning," growled Garstang, angry and surly. "What I want is a big haul, and damn the risk. There's no white liver about me, but I say, 'Let's wait till we've reason to know that the bank's safe is heavily loaded.' I say, 'Wait till we know extra big payments have been made into it.' Let's get all we can for our trouble."
"'Ere, 'ere," said Sweet William. "I'm there. Same sentiment 'ere," and he smote his narrow chest.
"But how are we to find out the bank's business?" asked Dolphin. "Lor' bless us, if the manager would tip us the wink, we'd be all right."
"Get me took in as extry clerk," suggested William. "Blame me, if I don't apply for the billet to-morrow morning."
"Go on chiacking," said Garstang; "poke borak—it don't hurt me. But if you want to do anything in a workmanlike and perfessional manner, listen to advice. Isn't shipments of virgin gold made from the Coast? Isn't such shipments made public by the newspapers? Very good. When we see a steamer has brought up a pile of gold, where's it put but in the bank? There's our chance. D'you follow? Then we'll be sure to get something for our pains."
"'Ere, 'ere!" cried Sweet William, smacking the now leering Garstang on the back. "Good on you. Maximum return for minimum risk."
Carnac joined in the laugh. "You're not so thick-headed after all," he said to the crooked-faced man.
"Nor 'e ain't so awful white-livered neither," said William.
Dolphin, whose eyes were fixed on the table contemplatively, was silent for a while. When the noise made by the other three had terminated, he said, "Well, have it as you like. But how will the scheme fit in with the steamer business?"
"First rate," answered William. "Where there's gold there'll be a steamer to take it away, won't there?"
"And when the steamer doesn't get its gold at the appointed time," replied Dolphin, "the whole town will be roused to hunt for it. That's no game for us. I agree to waiting for gold to be lodged in the bank, but if that does't come off within reasonable time, I'm for taking the chance that's offered. I'm willing to wait a fortnight. How'd that suit you, Garstang?"
"I'm agreeable," said the sour-faced man.
"And in the meanwhile," added the leader, "we don't know one another. If we meet, we don't so much as pass the time of day. D'you all understand?"
The three answered affirmatively, and Sweet William said, "Don't never any of you chaps come near my shanty. This meetin' stands adjourned sine die."
"If there's a notice in the newspaper of gold arriving, that means we meet here at once," said Dolphin, "otherwise we meet this day fortnight. Is that clear?"
"Yes, that's clear," said Garstang.
"Certainly," said Carnac, "perfectly clear."
"An', please, when you go," said Sweet William, "don't raise the whole neighbourhood, but make a git one by one, and disperse promiscuous, as if you'd never met in your beautiful lives."
The four men were now standing round the table.
"Good night all," said Dolphin, and he went out quietly by the front door.
"Remember what the boss says about the wine," remarked William, when the leader of the gang had gone. "No boozing and giving the show away. You're to be strictly sober for a fortnight, Garstang. And, Carny, if that girl at The Lucky Digger tries to pump you as to what your lay is, tell 'er you've come to buy a little property and settle down. She'll think you mean marrying."
Carnac smiled. "You might be my grandfather, William," he said.
"Personally, I'm a shearer that's havin' a very mild sort of spree and knockin' down his cheque most careful. You've bin aboard a ship, ain't you, Garstang?"
"D'you suppose I swam out to this blanky country?" said the crooked-featured gentleman.
"Then you're a sailor that's bin paid off and taken your discharge."
Carnac had his hand on the latch of the door through which Dolphin had disappeared.
"No, no; you go out the back way," said William, who conducted the man in the velvet coat into the back yard, and turned him into a paddock full of cabbages, whence he might find his way as best he could to the roadway.
When the youthful William returned, Garstang was smoking; his elbows on the table, and his ugly head resting in his hands.
"You seem bloomin' comfortable, Garstang."
"I'd be a darn sight more comfortabler for a drop of grog, William."
William took a bottle from beneath his bed.
"Just eleven o'clock," said the younger man, looking at his watch. "This house closes punctual. You shall have one nip, mister, and then I chuck you out."
He poured the contents of the bottle into the solitary mug, and added water from a jug with a broken lip. Then the two rogues drank alternately.
"What do you intend to do when you've made your pile, Garstang?"
"Me? I'm goin' back to London and set up in a nice little public, missis, barmaid, and boots, complete, and live a quiet, virtuous life. That's me. I should prefer somewheres down Woolwich way—I'm very fond of the military."
"I'm goin' to travel," said William. "I'm anxious for to see things and improve me mind. First, I'll go to America—I'm awful soft on the Yanks, and can't help thinkin' that 'Frisco's the place for a chap with talent. Then I'll work East and see New York, and by-and-by I'll go over to Europe an' call on the principal Crown Heads—not the little 'uns, you understand, like Portugal and Belgium, or fry of that sort: they ain't no class—an' then I'll marry a real fine girl, a reg'lar top-notcher with whips of dollars, an' go and live at Monte Carlo. How's that for a programme, eh?"
"Nice and complete. But I rayther expect the Crown 'Eads'd be one too many for you. The Czar o' Rooshia, f'r instance, I fancy he'd exile you to Siberia."
"But that'd be agin international law an' all rule an' precedent—I'd tell 'im I was a British subject born in Australia, and wrap a Union Jack around me stummick, an' dare 'im to come on. How'd that be for high?"
"You'd be 'igh enough. You'd be 'anded over to th' British authorities—they'd see you went 'igh enough. The experience of men of our perfession is, lie very low, live very quiet, don't attract no attention whatever—when you've succeeded in makin' your pile. That's why I say a public: you've a few select pals, the best of liquor, and just as much excitement as a ordinary man needs. I say that, upon retirement, for men of our perfession a public's the thing."