"How'd a theayter do?"
"Too noisy an' unrestful, William. An' then think of all the wimmen—they'd bother a man silly."
"What d'you say to a song and dance 'all?"
"'Tain't so bad. But them places, William, I've always noticed, has a tendency to grow immoral. Now, a elderly gent, who's on the down-grade and 'as 'ad 'is experiences, don't exactly want that. No, I'm dead set on a public. I think that fills the bill completely."
"But we can't all go into the grog business."
"I don't see why. 'Tain't as if we was a regiment of soldiers. There's but four of us."
"Oh, well, the liquor's finished. You can make a git, Garstang. But, if you ask me what I'll do with this pile as soon as it's made, I say I still have a hankerin' after the Crown Heads. They must be most interestin' blokes to talk to: you see, they've had such experience. I'm dead nuts on Crown Heads."
"And they're dead nuts on the 'eads of the likes of you, William. Good-night."
"So-long, Garstang. Keep good."
And with those words terminated the gathering of the four greatest rogues who ever were in Timber Town.
Gold and Roses.
The Pilot's daughter was walking in her garden.
The clematis which shaded the verandah was a rich mass of purple flowers, where bees sucked their store of honey; the rose bushes, in the glory of their second blooming, scented the air, while about their roots grew masses of mignonette.
Along the winding paths the girl walked; a pair of garden scissors in one hand and a basket in the other. She passed under a latticed arch over which climbed a luxuriant Cloth of Gold, heavy with innumerable flowers. Standing on tip-toe, with her arms above her head, she cut half-a-dozen yellow buds, which she placed in the basket. Passing on, she came to the pink glory of the garden, Maria Pare, a mass of brown shoots and clusters of opening buds whose colour surpassed in delicacy the softest tint of the pink sea-shell. Here she culled barely a dozen roses where she might have gathered thirty. "Yellow and pink," she mused. "Now for something bright." She walked along the path till she came to M'sieu Cordier, brilliant with the reddest of blooms. She stole but six of the best, and laid them in the basket. "We want more scent," she said. There was La France growing close beside; its great petals, pearly white on the inside and rich cerise without, smelling deliciously. She robbed the bush of only its most perfect flowers, for though there were many buds but few were developed.
Next, she came to the type of her own innocence, The Maiden Blush, whose half-opened buds are the perfect emblem of maidenhood, but whose full-blown flowers are, to put it bluntly, symbolical of her who, in middle life, has developed extravagantly. But here again was no perfume. The mistress passed on to the queen of the garden, La Rosiere, fragrant beyond all other roses, its reflexed, claret-coloured petals soft and velvety, its leaves—when did a rose's greenery fail to be its perfect complement?—tinged underneath with a faint blush of its own deep colour.
She looked at the yellow, red, and pink flowers in her basket, and said, "There's no white." Now white roses are often papery, but there was at least one in the garden worthy of being grouped with the beauties in the basket. It was The Bride, typical, in its snowy chastity and by reason of a pale green tint at the base of its petals, of that purity and innocence which are the bride's best dowry.
Rose cut a dozen long-stemmed flowers from this lovely bush, and then—whether it was because of the sentiment conveyed by the blooms she had gathered, or the effect of the landscape, is a mystery unsolved—her eyes wandered from the garden to the far-off hills. With the richly-laden basket on her arm, she gazed at the blue haze which hung over mountain and forest. Regardless of her pleasant occupation, forgetful that the fragrant flowers in the basket would wither in the glaring sun, she stood, looking sadly at the landscape, as though in a dream.
What were her thoughts? Perhaps of the glorious work of the Master-Builder; perhaps of the tints and shades where the blue of the forest, the brown of the fern-clad foot-hills, the buff of the sun-dried grass, mottled the panorama which lay spread before her. But if so, why did she sigh? Does the contour of a hill suffuse the eye? Not a hundred-thousand hills could in themselves cause a sob, not even the gentle sob which amounted to no more than a painful little catch in Rose's creamy throat.
She was standing on the top of the bank, which was surmounted by a white fence; her knee resting on the garden-seat upon which she had placed her basket, whilst in reverie her spirit was carried beyond the blue mountains. But there appeared behind her the bulky form of her father, who walked in carpet slippers upon the gravel of the path.
"Rosebud, my gal." The stentorian tones of the old sailor's voice woke her suddenly from her day-dream. "There's a party in the parlour waitin' the pleasure of your company, a party mighty anxious for to converse with a clean white woman by way of a change."
The girl quickly took up her flowers.
"Who can it possibly be, father?"
"Come and see, my gal; come and see."
The old fellow went before, and his daughter followed him into the house. There, in the parlour, seated at the table, was Captain Sartoris.
Rose gave way to a little exclamation of surprise and pleasure; and was advancing to greet her visitor, when he arrested her with a gesture of his hand.
"Don't come too nigh, Miss Summerhayes," he said, with mock gravity. "I might ha' got the plague or the yaller fever. A man out o' currantine is to be approached with caution. Jest stand up agin' the sideboard, my dear, and let me look at you." The girl put down her roses, and posed as desired.
"Very pretty," said Sartoris. "Pink-and-white, pure bred, English—which, after being boxed in with a menag'ry o' Chinamen and Malays, is wholesome and reassuring."
"Are you out for good, Captain?"
"They can put me aboard who can catch me, my dear. I'd run into the bush, and live like a savage. I'm not much of a mountaineer, but you would see how I could travel."
"But what was the disease?" asked the Pilot.
"Some sort of special Chinese fever; something bred o' dirt and filth and foulness; a complaint you have to live amongst for weeks, before you'll get it; a kind o' beri-beri or break-bone, which was new to the doctors here. I've been disinfected and fumigated till I couldn't hardly breathe. Races has their special diseases, just the same as they has their special foods: this war'n't an English sickness; all its characteristics were Chinee, and it killed the Captain because he'd lived that long with Chinamen that, I firmly believe, his pigtail had begun to shoot. Furrin crews, furrin crews! Give me the British sailor, an' I'll sail my ship anywhere."
"And run her on the rocks, at the end of the voyage," growled the Pilot.
"I never came ashore to argify," retorted the Captain. "But if it comes to a matter of navigation, there are points I could give any man, even pilots."
Seeing that the bone of contention was about to be gnawed by the sea-dogs, Rose interposed with a question.
"Have you just come ashore, Captain?"
"In a manner o' speakin' he has," answered her father, who took the words out of his friend's mouth, "and in a manner o' speakin' he hasn't. You see, my dear, we went for a little preliminary cruise."
"The first thing your father told me was about this here robbery of mails. 'When was that?' I asked. 'On the night of the 8th or early morning of the 9th,' he says. That was when the captain of the barque died. I remembered it well. 'Summerhayes,' I said, 'I have a notion.' And this is the result, my dear."
From the capacious pocket of his thick pilot-jacket he pulled a brown and charred piece of canvas.
"What's that?" he asked.
"I haven't the least idea," replied Rose.
"Does it look as though it might be a part of a mail-bag?" asked Sartoris. "Look at the sealing-wax sticking to it. Now look at that." He drew from the deep of another pocket a rusty knife.
"It was found near the other," he said. "Its blade was open. And what's that engraved on the name-plate?—your eyes are younger than mine, my dear." The sailor handed the knife to Rose, who read the name, and exclaimed, "B. Tresco!"
"That's what the Pilot made it," said Sartoris. "And it's what I made it. We're all agreed that B. Tresco, whoever he may be, was the owner of that knife. Now this is evidence: that knife was found in conjunction with this here bit of brown canvas, which I take to be part of a mail-bag; and the two of 'em were beside the ashes of a fire, above high water-mark. On a certain night I saw a fire lighted at that spot: that night was the night the skipper of the barque died and the night when the mails were robbed. You see, when things are pieced together it looks bad for B. Tresco."
"I know him quite well," said Rose: "he's the goldsmith. What would he have to do with the delivery of mails?"
"Things have got this far," said the Pilot. "The postal authorities say all the bags weren't delivered on board. They don't accuse anyone of robbery as yet, but they want the names of the boat's crew. These Mr. Crookenden says he can't give, as the crew was a special one, and the man in charge of the boat is away. But from the evidence that Sartoris has brought, it looks as if Tresco could throw light on the matter."
"It's for the police to take the thing up," said Sartoris. "I'm not a detective meself; I'm just a plain sailor—I don't pretend to be good at following up clues. But if the police want this here clue, they can have it. It's the best one of its kind I ever come across: look at it from whatever side you please. It's almost as perfect a clue as you could have, if you had one made to order. A policeman that couldn't follow up that clue——'Tresco' on the knife, and, alongside of it, the bit of mail-bag—why, he ought to be turned loose in an unsympathising world, and break stones for a living. It's a beautiful clue. It's a clue a man can take a pride in; found all ready on the beach; just a-waitin' to be picked up, and along comes a chuckle-headed old salt and grabs it. Now, that clue ought to be worth a matter of a hundred pound to the Government. What reward is offered, Pilot?"
"There's none, as I'm aware of," answered Summerhayes. "But if the post-master is a charitable sort of chap, he might be inclined to recommend, say, fifty; you bein' a castaway sailor in very 'umble circumstances. I'll see what I can do. I'll see the Mayor."
"Oh, you will!" exclaimed Sartoris. "You'd better advertise: 'Poor, distressed sailor. All contributions thankfully received.' No, sir, don't think you can pauperise me. A man who can find a clue like that"—he brought the palm of his right hand down with a smack upon the table, where Tresco's knife lay—"a man who can find that, sir, can make his way in any community!"
Just at that moment there were heavy footsteps upon the verandah, and a knocking at the front door.
Rose, who was sitting near the window, made a step or two towards the passage, but the old Pilot, who from where he stood could see through the glass of the front door, forestalled her, and she seated herself opposite the skipper and his clues.
"So you think of visiting the police sergeant?" she asked, by way of keeping up the conversation.
But the skipper's whole attention was fixed on the voices in the next room, into which the Pilot had conducted his visitor.
"H'm," said Sartoris, "I had an idea I knew the voice, but I must have been mistaken. Who is the party, Miss Rose?"
"I haven't the slightest clue," replied the girl, smiling. "Father has such a number of strange friends in the port that I've long given up trying to keep count of them. They come at all hours, about all sorts of things."
The words were hardly out of her mouth, when the Pilot, wearing a most serious expression of face, entered the room.
"Well, well," he said, "well, well. Who'd ha' thought it? Dear, dear. Of all the extraordinary things! Now, Cap'n Sartoris, if you'd 'a' asked me, I'd 'a' said the thing was impossible, impossible. Such things goes in streaks, and his, to all intents and purposes, was a bad 'n; and then it turns out like this. It's most remarkable, most extraordinary. It's beyond me. I don't fathom it."
"What the deuce an' all are you talkin' about, Summerhayes?" Sartoris spoke most deprecatingly. "A man would think you'd buried a shipmate, or even lost your ship."
"Eh? What?" the Pilot thundered. "Lost my ship? No, no. I've bin wrecked in a fruiter off the coast of Sardinia, an' I've bin cast away on the island of Curacoa, but it was always in another man's vessel. No, sir, I never failed to bring the owners' property safe into port. Any fool can run his ship on shore, and litter her cargo along half-a-mile of sea coast."
"We've heard that argyment before," said Sartoris. "We quite understand—you couldn't do such a thing if you tried. You're a most exceptional person, and I'm proud to know you; but what's this dreadful thing that's redooced you to such a state of bad temper, that your best friends 'd hardly know you? I ask you that, Summerhayes. Is it anything to do with these clues that's on the table?"
"Clues be——!" It is sad to relate that the Pilot of Timber Town was about to use a strong expression, which only the presence of his daughter prevented. "Come out of that room there," he roared. "Come, an' show yourself."
There was a heavy tread in the passage, and presently there entered the room a very shabby figure of a man. A ruddy beard obscured his face; his hair badly needed cutting; his boots were dirty and much worn; his hands bore marks of hard work, but his eyes were bright, and the colour of his cheek was healthy, and for all the noise he made as he walked there was strength in his movements and elasticity in his steps.
Without a word of introduction, he held out his hand to Miss Summerhayes, who took it frankly.
Captain Sartoris had risen to his feet.
"How d'y do, sir," he said, as he shook hands. "I hope I see you well, sir. Have you come far, or do you live close handy?"
"I've come a matter of twenty miles or so to-day," said the tall stranger.
"Farming in the bush, I suppose," said Sartoris. "Very nice occupation, farming, I should think." He closely eyed the ragged man. "Or perhaps you fell down a precipice of jagged stones which tore you considerable. Anyhow, I'm glad I see you well, sir, very glad I see you well."
There was a rumbling noise like the echo of distant thunder reverberating through the hills. Rose and Sartoris almost simultaneously fixed their eyes upon the Pilot.
Summerhayes's huge person was heaving with suppressed merriment, his face was red, and his mouth was shut tight lest he should explode with laughter. But when he saw the two pairs of bewildered eyes staring at him, he burst into a laugh such as made the wooden walls of the house quiver.
Sartoris stood, regarding the Pilot as though he trembled for his friend's senses; and a look of alarm showed itself in Rose's face.
"You don't know him!" cried the Pilot, pulling himself together. But the Titanic laughter again took hold of him, and shook his vast frame. "You've travelled with him, you've sailed with him, you've known him, Sartoris—you've bin shipwrecked with him!" Here the paroxysm seized the Pilot anew; and when it had subsided it left him exhausted and feeble. He sank limply upon the old-fashioned sofa, and said, almost in a whisper, "It's Jack Scarlett, and you didn't know him; Jack Scarlett, back from the diggings, with his swag full of gold—and you thought him a stranger."
It was now the turn of Rose and the skipper to laugh. Jack, who up to this point had kept a straight face, joined his merriment to theirs, and rushing forward they each shook him by the hand again, but in a totally different manner from that of their former greeting.
Out of his "jumper" the fortunate digger pulled a long chamois-leather bag, tied at the neck with a boot-lace. Taking a soup-plate from the sideboard, he emptied the contents of the bag into it, and before the astonished eyes of the onlookers lay a heap of yellow gold.
They stared, and were speechless.
From about his waist Scarlett untied a long leather belt, which proved to be lined with gold. But the soup-plate would hold no more, and so the lucky digger poured the residue in a heap upon the polished table. Next, he went out to the verandah, and undoing his swag, he returned with a tin canister which had been wrapped in his blankets. This also was full of gold, and taking off its lid, he added its contents to the pile upon the table.
"And there's some left in camp," he said. "I couldn't carry it all to town."
"Well, well," said Sartoris, "while I've been boxed up in that stinking plague-ship, I might ha' been on God A'mighty's earth, picking up stuff like this. Well, well, what luck!"
"There must be a matter o' two thousand pound," said the Pilot. "Two thousand pound!"
"More," said Jack. "There should be about 800 ozs., valued at something like L3000; and this is the result of but our first washing-up."
"Good lord, what luck!" exclaimed the Pilot. "As I always have said, it comes in streaks. Now, Jack, here, has had his streak o' bad luck, and now he's got into a new streak, and it's so good that it's like to turn him crazy before he comes to the end of it. If you want to know the real truth about things, ask an old sailor—he won't mislead you."
But all that Rose said was, "How nice it must be to meet with such success."
"By George, I was almost forgetting our bargain," exclaimed Scarlett. He took from his pocket a little linen bag, which he handed to Rose. "Those are the nuggets you wanted—glad to be able to keep my promise."
The girl untied the neck of the small bag, and three heavy pieces of gold tumbled on the table.
"I can't take them," she exclaimed. "They're worth too much. I can't make any adequate return."
"I hope you won't try. Pilot, she must take them."
"Take 'em? Of course. Why, Rosebud, his luck would leave him to-morrer, if you was to stop him keeping his promise. You're bound to take 'em."
Rose weighed the bits of virgin gold in the palm of her little hand.
"Of course, I never really meant you to give me any of your gold," she said. "I only spoke in joke."
"Then it's a joke I should make pretty often, if I were you," said Sartoris. "You don't seem to know when you're well off."
"I take it under compulsion; hoping that you'll find so much more that you won't feel the loss of this."
"There's no fear of that," said Jack. "As for repayment, I hope you won't mention it again."
"I'll have to give it you in good wishes."
The basket of roses stood on the table. Jack looked at the beautifully blended colours, and stooped to smell the sweet perfume. "I'll take one of these," he said, "—the one you like the best."
The girl took a bud of La Rosiere, dark, velvety, fragrant, perfect. "I'm in love with them all," she said, "but this is my favourite."
She handed the bud to Jack, who put it in the button-hole of his worn and shabby coat.
"Thanks," he said, "I'm more than repaid."
Sartoris burst out laughing.
"Don't you feel a bit in the way, Summerhayes?" he said. "I do. When these young things exchange love-tokens, it's time we went into the next room."
"No," laughed the Pilot, "we won't budge. The gal gets twenty-pound worth of gold, and offers a rose in return. It's a beautiful flower, no doubt; but how would a slice of mutton go, after 'damper' and 'billy' tea? Rosebud, my gal, go and get Mr. Scarlett something to eat."
Joining in the laugh, Rose went into her kitchen, and Jack commenced to pack up his gold, in order that the table might be laid for dinner.
But if you come to think of it, there may have been a great deal in his request, and even more in the girl's frank bestowal.
The Foundation of the Gold League.
Mr. Crewe sat in the Timber Town Club with his satellite, Cathro, beside him. The old gentleman was smoking a well-seasoned briar pipe, from which he puffed clouds of smoke contemplatively, as he watched the gesticulations of a little man who was arguing with a gentleman who wore riding-breeches and leggings.
"I tell you, sir," said the little man, "that there is not the vestige of proof that the mails were stolen, not the slightest scintilla of truth in the suspicion."
"Then what became of them?" asked the other, as he fixed a gold horse-shoe pin more securely in his tie.
"What became of them?" exclaimed the little man. "They were washed overboard, washed overboard and lost."
"But," said the man of horses, "I happened to be riding home late that night, and, I assure you, there was not a breath of wind; the sea was as smooth as glass."
"That might be," retorted the little man, who was now pacing up and down in front of his adversary in a most excited fashion. "That might be, but there is a lot of surge and swell about a steamer, especially in the neighbourhood of the screw, and it is very possible, I may say highly probable, that the missing bags were lost as the mail was being passed up the side."
"But how would that affect the incoming mail?" asked the other. "Did that drop over the side, too?"
"No, sir," said the diminutive man, drawing himself up to his full height. "There is nothing to prove that the incoming mail was anything but complete. We are honest people in Timber Town, sir. I do not believe we have in the entire community men capable of perpetrating so vile a crime." He turned to the Father of Timber Town for corroboration. "I appeal to you, Mr. Crewe; to you, sir, who have known the town from its inception."
Mr. Crewe drew his pipe from his mouth, and said, with great deliberation, "Well, that is, ah—that is a very difficult question. I may say that though Timber Town is remarkably free from crime, still I have known rascals here, and infernal dam' rascals, too."
The little man fairly bristled with indignation at this remark. He was about to refute the stigma laid on his little pet town, when the door opened and in walked Scarlett, dressed still in his travel-stained clothes, and with his beard unshorn.
His appearance was so strange, that the little argumentative man believed an intruder, of low origin and objectionable occupation, had invaded the sacred precincts of his club.
"I beg your pardon, but what does this mean, sir?" he asked; immense importance in his bearing, gesture, and tone. "You have made some mistake, sir. I should like to know if your name has been duly entered in the visitors' book, and by whom, sir?"
Taking no notice of these remarks, Jack walked straight across the room, and held out his hand to Mr. Crewe. The white-haired old gentleman was on his feet in a moment. He took the proffered hand, and said, with a politeness which was as easy as it was natural, "What is it I can do for you, sir? If you will step this way, we can talk quite comfortably in the ante-room."
Jack laughed. "I don't believe you know me," he said.
"'Pon my honour, you're right. I don't," said Mr. Crewe.
Jack laughed again, a thing which in a non-member almost caused the pompous little man to explode with indignation.
"I'm the fellow, you know, who went to look for the new gold-field," said Jack, "and by the lord! I've found it."
"Scarlett! Is it you?" exclaimed old Mr. Crewe. "You have got it? My dear sir, this is good news; this is excellent news! You have found the new gold-field? This is really remarkable, this is indeed most fortunate! This is the happiest day I have seen for a long while!"
"Eh? What? what?" said Cathro, who was on his feet too. "Is it rich?"
"Rich?" said Jack. Taking a bank deposit-receipt from his pocket, he handed it to Cathro.
"Good God!" cried he, eyeing the figures on the paper, "it's a fortune."
Mr. Crewe had his gold spectacles upon his nose and the paper in his hand in a moment. "Three thousand one hundred and eighty-seven pounds!" he exclaimed. "Well, well, that is luck! And where's your mate, Scarlett? Where is Moonlight?"
"He's on the claim."
"On the claim? Then there's still gold in sight?"
"We've but scratched the surface," said Jack. "This is only the foretaste of what's to come."
The important little man, who had eagerly listened to all that had been said, was hovering round the group, like an excited cock sparrow.
"Really!" he exclaimed, "this is most interesting, very interesting indeed. A remarkable event, Mr. Crewe, a most remarkable event. Do me the honour, sir, to introduce me to your friend."
"Mr. Tonks, Scarlett," said the old gentleman. "Allow me to introduce Mr. Tonks."
Jack greeted the little man politely, and then turning to Cathro, said, "We've pegged off four men's claims; so, Cathro, you'll have to turn digger, and go back with me to the field."
"But my dear sir," replied Cathro, whose shrivelled form betokened no great physical strength, "my dear Scarlett, am I to do pick-and-shovel work? Am I to trundle a barrow? Am I to work up to my waist in water, and sleep in a tent? My dear sir, I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed."
Scarlett threw back his head, and laughed. "Oh, that's nothing," he said. "It's the getting there with a 70lb. swag on your back that's the trouble. The country is a mass of ranges; the bush is as thick as a jungle, and there's nothing but a blazed track to go by. But your claim is waiting for you. What do you intend doing with it?"
The attenuated Cathro sank on a couch despairingly. "I think I'll sell it," he said. "I'll sell it to Tonks here, I'll sell it for L1000 down, and be content with small profits and quick returns."
The little man, important that he should be referred to as good for so substantial an amount, strutted up and down, like a bantam on whom the eyes of the fowl-yard rested. However, the gentleman, dressed for riding, was beforehand with him.
"It's an open offer, I suppose," he said.
"Certainly," replied Cathro. "I don't care who gets my claim, so long as I get the money."
"Then it's concluded," said the horsey man. "I buy the claim."
"Done," said Cathro. "The matter is closed. The claim is yours. Now, that's how I like to do business; just a straight offer and a prompt acceptance. Scarlett, this is Mr. Chesterman. He takes my place. You can take him over the ranges and along the blazed track: no doubt, you'll find him a better bushman than myself. Chesterman is accustomed to carry a 70lb. swag; he'll make an excellent beast of burden. I wish you luck, Chesterman."
"But don't you think," said Mr. Crewe, turning to the horsey man, "don't you think you're rather hasty in buying for such a large sum a property you have never seen?"
"I've been on several gold-fields," said Chesterman, "and I have had good luck on all of them. My method has always been to act on the first information of a discovery. A field is always richest at the beginning of the rush, and I know by experience that the picked claims, on a new field that yields such results as this does on the first washing, are worth having. I start to-morrow. Is it possible to get a horse through?"
"No," replied the pioneer, "not the slightest chance of it. Until a track is cut, it will be quite impossible; but if you're good in the bush you can follow the blaze, when once you have struck it."
At this moment, there entered the room a very imposing person. He was quite six feet high, and broad in proportion; his frank and open face was adorned with a crisp, gold-coloured beard. He was dressed in a rough, grey, tweed suit, and carried a newspaper in his hand. Big men are not usually excitable, but the blue eyes of this Hercules were ablaze with suppressed emotion. In a voice that sounded like a cathedral bell, he said, without preface or introduction, so that the room rang again, "Listen. 'Gold discovery in the Eastern ranges. There has arrived in town a lucky digger who is said to have sold, this morning, some 800 ounces of gold to the Kangaroo Bank. It is understood that the precious metal came from a new gold-field on Bush Robin Creek, which lies somewhere Eastward of the Dividing Range. From accounts received, it would appear that a field of unequalled richness has been opened up, and that a phenomenal rush to the new El Dorado will shortly set in. All holders of Miners' Rights are entitled to peg off claims.' Gentlemen, I have been to the Kangaroo Bank," continued the giant, "and I have seen the gold myself. It is different from any sold here hitherto, barring some 70 ounces, which were brought in a few weeks ago, from the same locality. So, you see, we have had a gold rush created at our very doors. I propose that all the men present form themselves into a committee to wait upon the local representative of the Minister for Mines—that, I take it, would be the Commissioner for Lands—and urge the construction of a graded track to the new field."
"A very good suggestion," said Mr. Crewe, "a very good suggestion. For if you want to get these Government people to do anything, by Jupiter, you need to commence early. We'll go along, if you are willing, gentlemen; we'll go in a body to the Red Tape Office, and see what can be done. But before we go, let us drink the health of Mr. Scarlett, here. He has done remarkably well in bringing this discovery to light, and I ask you to drink to his continued good luck, at my expense, gentlemen, entirely at my expense."
The steward of the club, a thin, dark man, with black eyes which were watchful and merry, went quietly round the room, which was now filled with men, and took their orders. Then he disappeared.
"I think, gentlemen," continued Mr. Crewe, "that, as the oldest colonist present, I may be allowed to express an opinion. I think I may say, without fear of contradiction, that I have watched the development of many gold-fields in my time, and have benefited by not a few; and, gentlemen, from the description given by our friend, here, this new field is likely to prove the richest of them all. By far the best thing is for the younger men amongst us to go and prove the thing. I should recommend a party being formed under the guidance of Mr. Scarlett, and that it should start as soon as possible. I would go myself if I were a few years younger, and I will go so soon as the track is cut. I shall see the field myself. But I am really too old to contend with supple-jacks and 'lawyers' and the thick undergrowth of the bush. I should only be in your way. I should only be a nuisance."
The quick-eyed steward, who, by a method of memory known only to himself, had retained in his mind the correct list of the strange and various liquors ordered, now appeared with a gigantic tray, on which he bore a multitude of glasses. These he deftly handed round, and then all present rose to their feet.
"Mr. Scarlett," said the Father of Timber Town. "I ask you to drink his health and continued good luck."
The ceremony over, Jack stood up.
"It's awfully good of you," he said, "to give me the credit of this new 'find,' but as a matter of fact I have had little to do with it. The real discoverer is the man who came in from the bush, some six weeks ago, and painted the town red. After doing him justice, you should pay your respects to my mate, Moonlight, who is more at home in the bush than he is in town. To him you owe the declaration of the new field. I shall be returning in a day or two, and I shall be glad to take with me any of you who care to come. I promise you a rough journey, but there is good gold at the end of it."
He raised his glass to his lips, drained it, and sat down.
"We must organise," said the giant who had read from the newspaper, "we must form ourselves into some sort of a company, for mutual strength and support."
The notion of so big a man calling upon his fellows for help did not seem to strike anybody as peculiar, if not pathetic.
"Chair, chair," cried the pompous Mr. Tonks. "I propose that Mr. Crewe be placed in the chair."
"Unity is strength."
"Let me have my say."
"Sit down, old fellow; nobody wants to hear you."
Amid this babel of voices, old Mr. Crewe rose, and waited for the attention of his audience.
When every eye was riveted on him, he said, "Though I discerned the importance of this discovery, I was not prepared, gentlemen, for the interest you have so warmly expressed. It is a fact that this is the commencement of a new era in the history of Timber Town. We are about to enter upon a new phase of our existence, and from being the centre of an agricultural district, we are to become a mining town with all the bustle and excitement attendant upon a gold rush. Under the mining laws, each of you has as much right as my friend Scarlett, here, to a digger's claim upon this field, provided only that you each obtain a Miner's Right and peg off the ground legitimately. But I understand that the desire is to unite for mutual benefit. That is to say, you desire to pool your interests and divide the proceeds. The first thing, then, is for each man to peg off his claim. That done, you can work the properties conjointly under the supervision of a committee, pay the gross takings into a common account, and divide the profits. In this way the owner of a duffer claim participates equally with the owner of a rich one. In other words, there is less risk of failure—I might say, no risk at all—but also much temptation. Such a scheme would be quite impossible except amongst gentlemen, but I should imagine that where men hold honour to be more precious than money, none will risk his good name for a little gold. First, it must be the association of working miners; secondly, a company of gentlemen. Unless a man feels he can comply with these two conditions, he had best stand aside."
"It would be too late for a man to think of backing out," interrupted the bearded Hercules, "after he had turned thief by performing the Ananias trick of keeping back part of his gains: that man would probably leave the field quicker than he went, and poorer."
"Or possibly he might not leave it at all," interjected Chesterman.
"However that might be," continued Mr. Crewe, "the object of all present is, I understand, to act in unison. There will be hundreds of diggers on the field before very long, and in many cases claims will be jumped and gold will be stolen, in spite of the Warden and the constabulary. You will be wise, therefore, to co-operate for mutual protection, if for no other reason."
"What shall the association be called?"
A dozen names were suggested by as many men. Some were offered in jest, some in earnest; but none met with approval. When the tempest of voices was past, Mr. Crewe said, "The association must have a name; certainly, it must have a name. It is not to be a company, registered under the Act. It is not to be a syndicate, or a trust. It is simply a league, composed of gentlemen who intend to stand beside each other, and divide the profits of their enterprise. If you cannot consolidate your claims, you must work them individually. I shall therefore suggest that you call yourselves The Timber Town Gold League. Your articles of agreement can be drawn up in half-an-hour, and you can all sign them before you leave this room." Here Scarlett whispered to Mr. Crewe, who scrutinised his hearers, and then said, "To be sure; certainly. Whilst Bulstrode, here, who is a lawyer and should know his business, is drawing up the document, Scarlett asks you to drink to the prosperity of the new league."
The suggested ceremony necessitated more speeches, but when they were finished the lawyer read the articles of association. Strangely enough, they were devoid of legal technicalities, and consisted of four clearly-worded clauses, destitute of legal fiction, to which all present readily subscribed their names.
That done, they drank to the prosperity of The Timber Town Gold League.
Scarlett had a day upon his hands while his gold-seeking confreres of the League made their preparations for the journey to Bush Robin Creek. To loiter about the town meant that he would be pestered with questions regarding the locality of the new "field," which, until his friends' "claims" were pegged off, it was desirous to keep secret. He decided, therefore, to re-visit the scene of the wreck of The Mersey Witch.
On a mount, lent him by Chesterman, he was on his way to the Maori pa, before the town was stirring. The road, which he had never traversed before, wound its tortuous way along the shore for some eight miles, and then struck inland across the neck of a wooded peninsula, on the further side of which the rugged and rocky shore was fringed with virgin forest. He had reached the thick and shady "bush" which covered the isthmus, where the dew of the morning still lay cool on leaf and frond, and the great black boles of the forest giants stood sentinel amid the verdant undergrowth, when he overtook a girl who was walking towards the pa.
Her dress was peculiar; she wore a short Maori mat over her shoulders, and a blue petticoat fell from waist to ankle, while her head and feet were bare.
Jack reined in his horse, and asked if he was on the road which led to the pa, when the girl turned her merry, brown face, with its red lips and laughing, brown eyes, and said in English as good as his own, "Good morning. Yes, this is the road to the pa. Why, you were the last person I expected to see." She held up her hand to him, to greet him in European fashion.
"Amiria!" he exclaimed. "How are you? It's quite appropriate to meet you here—I'm on my way to the wreck, to see how the old ship looks, if there is anything of her left. How far is it to the pa?"
"About two miles."
"What brings you so far, at this time of the morning?"
"You passed a settler's house, half-a-mile back."
"Yes, a house built of slabs."
"I have been there to take the woman some fish—our people made a big haul this morning."
Jack dismounted, and, hooking his arm through the bridle, he walked beside the Maori girl.
"Why didn't you ride, Amiria?"
"My horse is turned out on the hills at the back of the pa, and it's too much trouble to bring him in for so short a ride. Besides, the walk won't hurt me: if I don't take exercise I shall lose my figure." She burst into a merry laugh, for she knew that, as she was then dressed, her beauty depended on elasticity of limb and sweetness of face rather than upon shape and fashion.
"I'll show you the wreck," she said. "It lies between us and the pa. It looks a very harmless place in calm weather with the sun shining on the smooth sea. The tide is out, so we ought to be able to reach the wreck without swimming."
They had come now to the edge of the "bush," and here Scarlett tied his horse to the bough of a tree; and with Amiria he paced the soft and sparkling sands, to which the road ran parallel.
The tide was low, as the girl had said, and the jagged rocks on which the bones of the ship lay stranded, stood black and prominent above the smooth water. The inner reefs were high and dry, and upon the slippery corrugations of the rocks, covered with seaweed and encrusted with shell-fish, the two walked; the Maori girl barefooted and agile, the Englishman heavily shod and clumsy.
Seeing the difficulty of Scarlett's advance, Amiria held out her hand to him, and so linked they approached the sea. A narrow belt of water separated them from the reef on which the wreck lay, and to cross this meant immersion.
"The tide is not as low as I thought," said Amiria. "At low spring-tide you can walk, almost dry-shod, to the other side."
"I'm afraid we can't reach it without a ducking," said Scarlett.
"But you can swim?"
Scarlett laughed. "It's hardly good enough to ride home in wet clothes." He divined Amiria's meaning, but pretended otherwise.
Then she laughed, too. "But I have a plan," she said. Without a word more, she threw off her flax cape and dropped into the water. A few strokes and she had reached the further reef. "It will be all right," she cried, "I think I can ferry you across on a raft."
She walked over the sharp rocks as though her feet were impervious, and clambering through a great rent in the vessel's side, she disappeared.
When next Jack caught sight of her she was perched on the top of the battered poop, whence she called, "I'll roll a cask over the rocks, and get you across. There's a big chest in the saloon that belongs to you."
She disappeared again, and when Jack next saw her, she was rolling a huge barrel with difficulty towards the channel.
"It's a quarter-full of sand," she cried, "and when you stand it on its end it is ballasted. You'll be able to come over quite dry."
Launching the cask, she pushed it before her as she swam, and soon clambered up beside Scarlett.
"It's bunged, I see," said he.
"I did it with a piece of wood," said she.
Then, booted and spurred, Jack placed himself cross-legged on the cask, and so was ferried across the intervening strip of water.
The main deck of the vessel was washed away, but the forecastle and poop remained more or less intact. The ship, after settling on the rock, had broken her back, and the great timbers, where the copper sheathing and planks had been torn away, stood up like naked ribs supporting nothing.
Walking upon an accumulation of sand and debris, the Maori girl and Jack passed from the hold to what was left of the main deck, and entered the saloon. All the gilding and glory had departed. Here a cabin door lay on the floor, there the remains of the mahogany table lay broken in a corner. A great sea-chest, bearing Scarlett's name upon its side, stood in the doorway that led to the captain's cabin. Full of sand, the box looked devoid of worth and uninviting, but Scarlett, quickly taking a piece of board, began to scoop out the sodden contents. As he stooped, a ray of sunlight pierced the shattered poop-deck and illumined his yellow hair. Attracted by the glitter, Amiria put out her hand and stroked his head.
Jack looked up.
"Isn't that a bit familiar?" he asked.
Amiria laughed. "Not from the girl who saved you. If I hadn't pulled you out of the water, it might seem a great thing to touch you, but I know you so well that really it doesn't matter."
Jack buried his head in the chest. This relationship between preserver and preserved was new to him: he hardly knew what to make of it. But the humour of the situation dawned on him, and he laughed.
"By George, I'm at your mercy," he said, and, standing up, with his back still towards her, he laughed again. "You've appropriated me, just as your people appropriated the contents of this box and the rest of the wreckage. You'll have to be put in charge of the police for a little thief." And again his laugh rang through the ruined saloon.
Remarking that the girl made no reply to this sally, he glanced towards her, to find that she had turned her back upon him and was sobbing in a corner. Leaving his task of clearing out the sea-chest, he went towards her, and said, "I'm awfully sorry, Amiria, if I've said anything that hurt your feelings. I really didn't mean to." He had yet to learn that a Maori can bear anything more easily than laughter which seems to be derisive.
As the girl continued to cry, he placed his hand upon her shoulder. "Really, Amiria, I meant nothing. I would be the last person on earth to hurt your feelings. I don't forget what I owe you. I can never repay you. If I have been clumsy, I ask your pardon." He held up her head, and looked into her tear-stained face. "You'll forgive me, won't you?"
The girl, her still untutored nature half-hidden beneath a deceptive covering of Pakeha culture, broke into a torrent of Maori quite unintelligible to the white man, but as it ended in a bright smile bursting out from behind her tears, he knew that peace was made.
"Thank you," he said; "we're friends again."
In a moment, she had thrown her arms about him and had burst into a rhapsody in her native tongue, and, though he understood not one word of it, he knew intuitively that it was an expression of passionate affection.
The situation was now more awkward than before. To rebuff her a second time would be to break his word and wound her more deeply than ever. So he let this new burst of feeling spend itself, and waited for her to return to her more civilised self.
When she did, she spoke in English. "You mustn't judge me by the Pakeha girls you know. My people aren't like yours—we have different ways. White girls are cold and silent when they feel most—I know them: I went to school with them—but we show our feelings. Besides, I have a claim on you which no white girl has. No white girl would have pulled you out of the surf, as I did. And if I showed I cared for you then, why shouldn't I show it now? Perhaps the Pakeha would blame me, but I can't always be thinking of your ritenga. In the town I do as the white woman does; out here I follow the Maori ritenga. But whichever ritenga it is, I love you; and if you love me in return, I am the happiest girl in the kainga."
Scarlett gave a gasp. "Ah—really, I wasn't thinking of marrying—yet."
Amiria smiled. "You don't understand," she said. "But never mind; if you love me, that's all right. We will talk of marrying by and by."
Scarlett stood astonished. His mind, trained in the strict code of a sternly-proper British parish, failed to grasp the fact that a Maori girl regards matters of the heart from the standpoint of a child of Nature; having her code of honour, it is true, but one which is hardly comprehended by the civilised Pakeha.
Jack felt he was standing upon the dizzy abyss that leads to loss of caste. There was no doubt of Amiria's beauty, there was no doubt of her passionate affection, but there was a feeling at the back of his mind that his regard for her was merely a physical attraction. He admired every curve of her supple shape, he felt his undying gratitude go out to the preserver of his life, but that was all. Yet a weakness was stealing over him, that weakness which is proportionate usually to the large-heartedness of the individual.
Suddenly relinquishing Amiria's clasp, he went to the broken port-hole of a dilapidated cabin and looked out upon the incoming sea.
"We must be quick," he cried, "or we shall be caught by the tide."
"What matter?" said the girl, lazily. "I have stayed here a whole night when the sea was not as calm as it is now."
"But I have to get back to town—I start for the gold-fields to-morrow, before daylight."
"Why do you go to the stupid gold-fields? Isn't there everything a man wants here? The pa is full of food—you shall want for nothing."
"I suppose it is the Pakeha way to want to grow rich. Come along."
He clambered down to where the broken keelson lay, and regained the rocks. Amiria followed him slowly, as though reluctant to leave the scene of her confession, but presently she stood beside him on the slippery seaweed.
He led the way to where the barrel lay floating in the rising tide. That the ignominy of being ferried by a girl might not be repeated, he had brought from the wreck a piece of board with which to propel himself.
Perceiving his intention so soon as he was sitting cross-legged on the top of his strange craft, Amiria dashed into the water, seized the improvised oar, and threatened to drag it from his grasp.
"I'll take you across myself," she almost screamed. "Why should you think I don't want to take you back?"
"All right," said Jack, dropping his piece of wood, "have it your own way. I hand myself over to you, but let us get across quickly."
Again the Englishman felt how mean are the conventions of the white man, how petty his propriety; again the Maori girl felt nothing but pleasure and pride in the part she played.
When they reached the further side, Amiria picked up her mat and threw it over her glistening shoulders, and Scarlett floundered over the slippery rocks towards the beach.
"You'll come to the pa?"
"You're too kind. I must get back to town."
"But you've had nothing to eat."
"I have my lunch in my wallets."
Amiria's face fell. "You're very unkind," she said.
"I'll stay all day, next time I come."
"When will that be?"
"As soon as I can. Ah, here's my horse, under this birch tree. Well, good-bye, Amiria. Thank you for taking charge of me to-day. My word, how you can swim: like a mermaid."
His hand touched hers for a brief moment; the next he was in the saddle. His spur lightly touched the horse's flank, and the springy turf yielded to the iron-shod hooves; there was a waving of a disappearing hand, and the brown girl was left alone.
"You will come back," she called through the leaves.
"I'll come back."
Then, slowly, sadly, she walked towards the pa, talking to herself in Maori, listless and sorrowful.
By the time that Scarlett had reached the outskirts of Timber Town the night had begun to close in. Leaving the main road, he passed along a by-way to a ford, where a foot-bridge spanned the river. As his horse bent its head to drink, Jack heard a woman scream upon the bridge above him. In a moment he had dismounted, and his heavy boots were resounding on the wooden planks. In the middle of the bridge he came upon a girl struggling in the grasp of a thick-set ruffian, who was dragging her towards the bank further from the town. Grappling with the brutal fellow, Jack released the girl, who ran past him in the direction of the horse.
The scoundrel cursed and kicked, but Jack, who had him by the throat, almost squeezed the life out of him, and then heaved him over the bridge into the dark and gurgling water. Returning to the girl, who was standing at the bridge-head, crying and, seemingly, deprived of power to run further, Scarlett led her to where the horse stood beside the water.
"Which way shall I take you?" he asked.
"I live at the other side of the town," she replied. "I was going home when that brute met me on the bridge." Again she lost control of her powers, and Jack was obliged to support her.
When she had recovered, he swung her into the saddle and led the horse across the river.
"I was just in time," he said. "How do you feel now?"
"It's lucky I didn't kill the brute. Do you know who he is?"
"I never saw him before. But I think he's a digger: lots of them have come into the town since this discovery of gold was made. Oh, I'm so frightened! Do you think he will come again?"
"It's hardly likely. I think he must have had enough trouble for one night."
"Suppose you have drowned him——"
"There's no chance of that—the water is only deep enough to break his fall. He'll be all right."
"I think I had better get down, if you please: it would be rather an unusual thing to ride through the town in this manner. I think I can walk."
She slid limply to the ground, and Jack supported her.
"Whom must I thank for helping me?" she asked.
"I'm a digger, too," said Jack; and he told her his name.
"Are you the man who discovered the new field?"
"Some people give me the credit of it. I start back to-morrow. It was lucky I was crossing that stream when I did. You haven't told me whom I have had the pleasure of rescuing."
They were passing a street lamp, and for the first time Jack could see the girl's face. She was pretty, with black hair, an oval face, and a dark complexion.
"I'm Miss Varnhagen," she said. "My Dad will be awfully grateful to you." She looked at her preserver with eyes which expressed all the gratitude that Scarlett could desire.
"I'll see you safely home," he said; "and when you tell your father, perhaps he will repay me by letting me see you again."
"He'll be only too pleased. He says the town owes you more than it can ever pay you for discovering this gold, which, he says, will mean thousands of pounds to him and the other merchants."
They passed through the town and paused before a great wooden mansion, painted a light colour, which made it conspicuous even in the dark. Here Rachel said she lived. Between the gate and the house grew a plantation of palms, camellias, and rare shrubs, which were displayed by the lights which shone above the gate and the door.
"Won't you come in and see my father?"
"Nothing would please me more, but I'm wet, and my horse is tired and needs a feed. Some other time I'll call and tell your father how pleased I was to be of service to you. Good-night."
Rachel gave his hand a tender squeeze. "Thanks awf'lly," she said, looking up at him with seraphic eyes. "Thank you awf'lly much. I think you're just the nicest man I ever met. Be sure you come to see us when you return. Good-night." Another tender squeeze of the hand, another affectionate look, and she disappeared among the palms and camellias.
Jack mounted his horse, and rode it to its stables. Then he went to The Lucky Digger, where he changed his clothes and had dinner, after which he directed his steps towards the house of Pilot Summerhayes.
His knock was answered by Rose herself, who conducted him into the quaint dining-room, where, upon the polished table, lay the materials for a dress which she was making, and beside them the hundred-and-one oddments which are necessary for such a task.
"Father's out. He has gone to fetch a steamer in."
"I'm sorry," said Jack. "I should like to see him before I go back to the bush."
Rose sat silent. She was very demure, and her manner was somewhat stiff; therefore, seeing that his experiences had exhilarated him, Jack said, "I've had a great day. Two of the prettiest girls I ever saw almost devoured me."
"Where have you been, Mr. John Scarlett? You want watching."
Rose's bashfulness had entirely disappeared, but she was blushing profusely.
"I went out to see the wreck," said Jack, "and met your little Maori friend."
"Your life's preserver."
"My life's preserver. She ferried me across an impassable strip of water on a barrel, and almost captured my heart in the saloon."
"Don't play any games with Amiria's heart, or I shall cut you dead. I tell you that plainly."
"I assure you I have no intention whatever of playing with Amiria's heart. It was she who played with mine, and nearly won. But I saved myself by flight. It was fortunate I had a good horse."
Rose laughed. "One would imagine you were hardly big enough to look after yourself. That's the kind of young man they generally send out from England. Well?"
"As I was coming home I met a digger molesting another friend of mine, a Miss Varnhagen."
"You'd better be careful—she's a flirt."
"Then I rather like flirts. I threw the digger into the river, and took her home. She has the most lovely eyes I ever saw."
"And she knows how to use them."
"You're jealous, I'm afraid. Wouldn't you want to look at the man who had saved you from an ugly brute, who met you in the dark on a narrow bridge from which you couldn't possibly escape?"
"Perhaps. But why don't you feel a little sentimental over the girl who saved you from a watery grave? You're callous, I'm afraid, Mr. Scarlett."
"Not at all: I'm merely flattered. It seems a pity I can't stop in Timber Town, and see more of such girls; but I must be off to-morrow to get more gold. Gold is good, Miss Summerhayes, but girls are better."
"Fie, fie. Gold and a good girl—that's perfection."
"They always go together—I quite understand that."
"Now you're frivolling. You're making yourself out to be blase and all that. I shall tell my father to forbid you the house."
"In which case I shall call on Miss Varnhagen."
"That would be all right—you would meet with the punishment you deserve. Marry the Varnhagen girl, and you will be grey in two years, and bald in five."
"Well, I'm going to the gold-fields to-morrow."
"So you said. I hope you will have the same luck as before."
"Is that all you have to say?"
"What more do you want?"
"You've got gold: you've got feminine adoration. What more is there, except more gold?"
"More feminine adoration."
"I should have thought you had to-day as much affection as is good for you."
"You're in high spirits to-night."
"I am. It's jolly to think of people succeeding. It's jolly to know somebody is growing rich, even if my old father and I are poor, that is too poor for me to go to assembly balls and private dances and things like that. So I sit at home and sew, and make puddings, and grow roses. Heigh-ho! I'm very happy, you know."
Jack looked at her closely. Her cheeks were pink-and-white, her crisp, brown hair formed a becoming setting to her face, and her blue eyes sparkled as they watched him.
"It seems to agree with you," he said. "I feel inclined to recommend a course of sewing and cooking to all my plain girl-friends."
"I mean it."
"Then go, and tell Rachel Varnhagen to use your recipe."
"She's beautiful already."
Just at this point of the conversation, there was the sound of heavy steps somewhere in a remote part of the house, and presently the Pilot of Timber Town tramped into the room.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed. "Mr. Scarlett! Making love to my dar'ter, when I thought you was on your way to the diggings? Come, come; you're losing your opportunities; you're wasting time in gallivanting, when you might be growing rich. There's great news abroad. They've issued a writ against that chap Tresco for the robbery of those mail-bags."
"Tresco?" said Scarlett.
"Aye, Tresco the goldsmith. He's wanted by the police."
"Then I'm afraid they won't find him," said Jack. "He's safe, I reckon."
"Indeed. How do you know that?"
"He was in the bush with his prospector friend, when I left Bush Robin Creek. But he robbed no mails, bless you, Pilot. What would he want with other people's letters?"
"I don't pretend to know. There's money in mail-bags, I suppose. Perhaps he was after that."
"He's after gold, right enough, and he'll get it, if I'm not mistaken."
Jack had risen to go.
"We leave early in the morning," he said. "I must get some sleep. Good-bye, Pilot; good-bye, Miss Summerhayes."
"Good luck, lad. Come back rich."
Rose was silent till Jack was near the door. Then she said, "I shall remember your recipe—I shan't neglect home duties: I shall attend to them regularly."
Jack laughed, and the Pilot went with him to the front door.
"Eh, lad, there never was such a gal for minding a house. She can make a batter-puddin' with anyone, and I don't care who the next is. Good night, lad, good night. There's never no need to tell her to look after her old father, none at all. And it's a good test—as good as you can have, Jack, my lad. If a gal looks after her old father well, she'll look after her husband, too, when he comes along. Good night, Jack; good night. Eh, but you're in a lucky streak. You'll die rich, Jack. Good night, Jack; good night."
Tresco and the Prospector were eating their "tucker" beneath the boughs of a spreading black-birch. In front of them burned brightly a fire of dead branches, suspended above which was the "billy," black and battered externally, but full of fragrant tea.
"I shall go home to England," said Benjamin; his mouth half-filled with cold bacon. "I shall visit my widowed mother, and be the comfort and support of her declining years. There must be over 200 ounces in the tent, and hundreds more in the claim."
"I ain't got a widowed mother," said the Prospector. "I shall go into Timber Town and make The Lucky Digger open house—come when you like, have what you like, at the expense of Mr. William Wurcott. That's my style. I like to see a man free with his dollars."
They had pegged out their claim at a spot where the corrugations in the rocky bed of the creek stretched from bank to bank and a beach of soft sand spread itself along the water's edge.
The first "prospect" that they had "panned off" resulted in a return of a couple of ounces. Next they had "fossicked" with sheath-knives in the crevices of the rocks, and had quickly got something more than half a cupful of gold, in shape and size like pumpkin seeds. The day following, they continued to "pan off" the sands in front of their tent; each dish yielding a handsome return. But as Benjamin found this process difficult in his unskilful hands, he directed his attention to looking for new patches. Wading about in the shallows with a dish in one hand and a shovel in the other, he overturned loose bits of rock which he found lying on the sand. Sometimes he would find an ounce or two, sometimes nothing at all; but upon turning over a flat slab of rock, to raise which needed all his strength, he gave a whoop of delight, for a yellow mass lay glittering in the rippling waters. With a single scoop of his shovel he had won 80 ozs. of gold.
This rich spot was where the water was but two feet deep, and above it and below it gold could be seen shining amongst the sand and gravel. When the cream of the claim, so to speak, had been skimmed off with the tin dish, the men began to set up sluice boxes, by means of which they might work the whole of their ground systematically.
In constructing these boxes they received every help from Moonlight, who lent them tools, and aided them in cutting out the slabs. Left mateless during Scarlett's visit to Timber Town, the veteran miner frequently exchanged his lonely camp for the more congenial quarters of Tresco and the Prospector.
It was during one of the foregatherings round the camp-fire, when Night had spread her sable mantle over the sleeping earth, and only the wakeful wood-hen and the hoarsely-hooting owl stirred the silence of the leafy solitude, that Moonlight was "swapping" yarns with the Prospector. As the flames shot up lurid tongues which almost licked the overhanging boughs, and the men sat, smoking their black tobacco, and drinking from tin pannikins tea too strong for the urban stomach, Bill the Prospector expectorated into the flames, and said:
"The biggest streak o' luck I ever had—barring this present field, you understand—was at the Diamond Gully rush. There weren't no diamonds, but I got over 100 ounces in three days. Gold was more plentiful than flour, and in the police camp there was two safes full of gold belonging to the Bank, which was a twelve by eight tent, in charge of a young feller named Henery. A more trusting young man I never met. When I went to sell my little pile, he had over 12,000 ounces in a old leather boot-trunk in his tent, besides more in a sugar-bag. He'd even filled one of his top-boots with gold, and its feller stood waitin' to receive my contribution. 'Good morning,' I says. 'Are you the boss o' this show?' 'I'm in charge of the Bank,' he says, just as grand as if he was behind a mahog'ny counter with brass fixings. 'Then weigh my pile,' I says, handing over my gold. Then what d'you think he done? 'Just wait till I get my scales,' he says. 'I've lent 'em to the Police Sergeant. Please have the goodness to look after the business while I'm gone.' With that he leaves me in the company of close on L100,000, and never a soul'd have bin the wiser if I'd helped myself to a thousand or two. But the reel digger don't act so—it's the loafers on the diggings gets us a bad name. I've dreamed of it, I've had reg'lar nightmares about it when I've bin stone-broke and without a sixpence to buy a drink."
"What?" said Tresco. "Gold littered about like lumber, and you practically given the office to help yourself? It's wonderful, Bill, what restraint there is in an honest mind! You can't ever have been to Sunday School."
"How d'you know?" asked the Prospector.
"Because, if you'd ha' bin regular to Sunday School when you were a boy, and bin told what a perfect horrible little devil you were, till you believed it, why, you'd ha' stole thousands of pounds from that calico Bank, just to prove such theories true. Now I was brought up godly. I was learnt texts, strings of 'em a chain long; I had a red-headed, pimply teacher who just revelled in inbred sin and hell-fire till he made me want to fry him on the school grate. I couldn't ha' withstood your temptation. I'd most certainly have felt justified in taking a few ounces of gold, as payment for keeping the rest intact."
"You're talking nonsense, the two of you," said Moonlight. "To rob on a gold-field means to be shot or, at the very least, gaoled. And when a man's on good gold himself, he doesn't steal other people's. My best luck was on the Rifle River, at a bend called Felix Point. It had a sandy beach where the water was shallow, just like this one here. My mate and I fossicked with a knife and a pannikin, and before the day was over we had between 30 and 40 ounces. The gold lay on a bottom of black sand and gravel which looked like so many eggs. After we'd put up our sluice we got as much as 200 ounces a day, and thought the claim poor when we got no more than fifty."
"I 'xpect you had a rare ole spree when you got to town," said the Prospector. "How much did you divide?"
"Between twenty and thirty thousand," replied Moonlight. "I handed my gold over to the Police escort, and went to town as comfortable as if I was on a turnpike road. I didn't go on the wine—I'm almost a teetotaler. A little red-headed girl got most of my pile—a red-headed girl can generally twist me round her thumb. That must have been ten years ago."
"You've grown older and, perhaps, wiser," interjected Benjamin. "Wonderful thing, age."
"This time I'm going to take a draft on Timbuctoo, or Hong-kong, or some place where red-headed girls are scarce, and see if I can't get away with a little cash."
"Most probably you've got a widowed mother, like me," said Benjamin. "Go, and comfort her declining years. Do like me: wipe out the recollection of the good times you've had by acts of filial piety. A widowed mother is good, but if you can rake up a maiden aunt and keep her too, that'll be a work of supererogation."
"Of how much?" asked Bill.
"It's a word I picked up in my College days—I'm afraid I've forgotten the precise meaning." Benjamin's face lit up with a smile that stretched from ear to ear. He lifted his pannikin to his lips, nodded to his companions, said, "Here's luck," and drank the black tea as though it had been nectar. "That's the beauty of turning digger," he continued; "the sobriety one acquires in the bush is phenomenal. If you asked me to name the most virtuous man on this planet, I should say a prospector in the bush—a bishop is nothing to him. But I own that when he goes to town the digger becomes a very devil let loose. Think of the surroundings here—innocent twittering birds, silent arboreous trees, clear pellucid streams, nothing to tempt, nothing to degrade."
Tresco might have amplified his discourse as fully as a bishop, but that at this point there was a shouting and the noise of dry boughs cracking under advancing feet. In a moment the three men were standing, alert, astonished, in various attitudes of defence.
Moonlight had armed himself with a pick, the Prospector had grasped a shovel, Tresco drew a revolver from inside his "jumper."
The shouting continued, though nothing could be seen. Then came out of the darkness, "What-ho there, Moonlight! Can't you give us a hand to cross the river?"
"It's my mate," said Moonlight. "I know the voice. Is that you, Scarlett?"
"It's Scarlett, all right," called back the voice, "but how am I to cross this infernal river?"
The three men walked to the edge of the water, and peered into the darkness.
"Perfectly safe," said the Prospector. "She's barely up to your middle."
There was a splashing as of some one walking in the water, and presently a dark object was seen wading toward them.
"Now, what the deuce is all this about, Scarlett?" It was Moonlight who thus expressed his wonderment. "The man who travels here at night deserves to get bushed. That you reached camp is just luck."
"Camp?" replied the dripping Scarlett. "I've been waiting for you at our camp since nightfall with twenty other devils worse than myself. Don't you ever sleep in your tent?"
"Of course 'e does," the Prospector answered for Moonlight, "but mayn't a digger be neighbourly, and go to see 'is friends?
"Come, and dry yerself by the fire, and have a bit of tucker."
"But Great Ghost!" exclaimed Moonlight, "all the gold's in my tent, in the spare billy."
"Quite safe. Don't worry," said Scarlett. "All those twenty men of mine are mounting guard over it, and if one of them stole so much as an ounce, the rest would kill him for breach of contract. That's the result of binding men to go share and share alike—they watch each other like ferrets."
Jack took off his clothes, and wrapped in a blanket he sat before the fire, with a pipe in his mouth and a steaming pannikin in his hand.
"Well, happy days!" he said as he drank. "And that reminds me, Tresco—you're wanted in Timber Town, very badly indeed—a little matter in connection with the mails. 'Seems there's been peculation of some sort, and for reasons which are as mad as the usual police tactics, the entire force is searching for you, most worthy Benjamin. The yarn goes that you're a forger in disguise, a counterfeiter of our sovereign's sacred image and all that, the pilferer of Her Majesty's mails, a dangerous criminal masquerading as a goldsmith."
"Holee Smoke!" cried the Prospector. "Look to your gold, gen'lemen—there's thieves abroad, and one of us may be harbourin' a serpent unaware. Ben, my lovely pal, consider yourself arrested."
"Do I understand there's a writ out?" asked Moonlight, serious, judicial, intensely solemn. "This must be put a stop to instantly. Imagine our virtuous friend in gaol."
"Anyway, joking apart, the men I have brought know all about it," said Scarlett. "You've got till to-morrow morning to make tracks, Benjamin."
The goldsmith coughed, and stood up in the full blaze of the fire-light. "I confess to nothing," he said. "My strong point hasn't been my piety, I own to that. I'm not much of a hot gospeller. I can't call to mind any works of unusual virtue perpetrated by me in unthinking moments. I'll go even so far as this: I'll acknowledge there are times when, if I let myself off the chain, I'd astonish all Timber Town; for there lurks somewhere inside my anatomy a demon which, let loose, would turn the town into a little hell, but, gentlemen, believe me, he is bound hand and foot, he's in durance vile. I'm no saint, but I'm no forger or counterfeiter, or animal of that sort—not yet. I have notions sometimes that I'd make a first-class burglar, if I gave my mind thoroughly to the business: I'd go to work in a scientific way; I'd do the business in a workmanlike fashion. I've got a strong leaning towards the trade, and yet I never burgled once, I who take a pleasure in investigating locks and latches and all the hundred-and-one contraptions used against thieves. But what is Timber Town?—a trap. The man who goes housebreaking in a little tin-pot place like that deserves to be caught. No, it is too isolated, too solitary, too difficult of egress to foreign parts, is Timber Town. The idea is preposterous, foolish, untenable—excellent word, untenable—and as for forging, the thing is so ridiculous that it isn't worth confuting. But what's this about robbing mails? What mails?"
"The incoming English mail," said Scarlett. "Someone went through the bags before they were delivered."
"Ah!" said Benjamin, "we must look for the motive in the perpetration of such a crime as that. We'll grant that the robbery took place—we'll make that concession. But what was the motive? The thief would expect one of two things—either to enhance his wealth, or to obtain valuable information. Who does the cap fit? Personally, I am as poor as a crow but for this gold: as regards information, all the secrets of the citizens of Timber Town do not interest me—I have no use for scandal—and as I have no rivals in my calling, mere trade secrets have no charm for me. The police are chuckle-heads." Tresco buried his face in his pannikin, and then re-lit his pipe.
"Very good argyment," commented the hirsute Prospector, "very clear and convincin', but the police aren't open to argyment—they act on instinct."
"Armed with a writ, a policeman is like a small boy with a shotgun," remarked Moonlight—"he must let it off. I don't say you're guilty, Tresco, but I say the minions of the Law will have you in their clutches if you don't make yourself scarce."
"An' just as I was accumulating the one little pile of my life," murmured Benjamin. "Sometimes I think the gods show incompetence in the execution of their duty; sometimes I think there ain't no gods at all, but only a big, blind Influence that blunders on through Creation, trampling promiscuous on small fry like me." He pulled at his pipe contemplatively. "Decamp, is it? Obscure my fairy-like proportions from the common gaze? But who's to look after my interests here? What's to become of my half of the gold yet ungot?"
"Can't you trust a mate?" said Bill. "Ain't I acted square so far? What are you gettin' at? I'll work the claim to its last ounce, and then I'll go whacks, same as if you'd bin here all the time. Then you can leave the country. Till then I'll put you away in a hiding-place where all the traps in the blanky country"—Bill had worked on Australian fields, and showed it in his speech—"won't find you, not if they search for years."
Scarlett rose. He had put on his garments, now dry and warm. "So-long, Benjamin," he said. "You may be the biggest criminal unhung, for all I know, but you have one thing in your favour: if you robbed those mails it must have been for the benefit of another man."
Moonlight bade good-bye, but as though to make up for his mate's aspersion, said, "I know nothing of this business, but I know the police. If they're not turned into a holy show when they set foot in this camp to look for you, may I never find another ounce of gold. Keep your end up, Benjamin. So-long." And he followed his mate into the darkness.
The Prospector was wrapped in thought. He sat, gazing into the fire, for fully ten minutes. Then he said, "There's three ways—the Forks, the Saddle, and the Long Valley. I give 'em my own names. The Saddle's the safest. It's a bit of a tough climb, but it's sure. There's no hurry, but we must leave here at dawn, before these newsters reach the claim, which Moonlight'll see isn't jumped. So we'll sleep happy and comfortable, pack our swags just before daylight, take all our gold along with us, and cook our tucker when we make our first halt. All serene, my lovely Bishop; all thought out and planned, just like in a book. Never hurry in the bush, my beautiful ecclesiastic, as nothing's ever gained by that. More haste, less speed—in the bush, my learned preacher. What a pity they didn't catch you young and turn you into a sky-pilot, Ben. The way you jawed them two was fit for the pulpit. But now I know where you got the money to repay me that L117. I don't want any explanation. I know where you got it."
The Goldsmith Comes to Town.
Timber Town was in a state of commotion. The news of the discovery of the new gold-field had spread far and wide, and every steamer which came into the port was crowded with clammering diggers. Every boarding-house was full to overflowing, every inn was choked with men in heavy boots and corduroy trousers; the roads on the outskirts of the town were lined with rows of tents; everybody talked of the El Dorado in the mountains; there was no thought but of gold; men were buying stores in every shop; pack-horses stood with their heavy loads, in every inn-yard; and towards the bush, threading their way through the tortuous gorge that led into the heart of the mountains, a continual string of diggers, laden with heavy "swags" or leading patient over-laden horses, filed into the depths of the forest.
Jake Ruggles had lived a troubled life since his legal head and overlord, the official sponsor of his promising young life, had dropped out of his existence, as a stone drops to the bottom of a well and is no more seen. Upon his immature shoulders rested all the worry of the goldsmith's business. He was master of Tresco's bench; the gravers and the rat-tail files, the stock-drills and the corn-tongs were under his hand for good or for evil. With blow-pipe and burnisher, with plush-wheel and stake-anvil he wrought patiently; almost bursting with responsibility, yet with anxiety gnawing at his heart. And the lies he told on behalf of his "boss"!—lies to men with unpaid accounts in their hands, lies to constables with bits of blue paper from the Clerk of the Court, lies to customers whose orders could not be executed except by the master-goldsmith. On all sides the world pressed heavily on Jake. His wizened face was quickly assuming the aspect of a little old man's; his furtive eyes began to wear a scared look; sleep had ceased to visit his innocent couch with regularity; his appetite, which formerly had earned him a reputation with his peers, was now easily appeased with a piece of buttered bread and a cup of milkless tea; the "duff" and rice puddings, of the goldsmith's making, had passed out of his life even as had the "boss" himself. Never was there a more badgered, woe-begone youth than Jake.
It was night time. The shutters of the shop were up, the door was bolted, the safe, with its store of gold-set gewgaws, was locked, and the key rested securely in the apprentice's pocket, but by the light of a gas-jet, his head bent over the bench, Jake was hard at work on a half-finished ring. In one hand he held a tapering steel rod, on which was threaded a circle of metal which might have been mistaken for brass; in the other he held a light hammer with which he beat the yellow zone. Tap-tap. "Jerusalem, my 'appy 'ome, oh! how I long for thee!" Tap-tap-tap went the hammer. "If the 'old man' was on'y here to lend a hand, I'd give a week's pay. The gold's full o' flaws—all along of the wrong alloy, in smeltin'—full o' cracks and crevices." He took the gold hoop off the steel rod, placed it on a piece of charred wood, pulled the gas-jet towards him, and with the blow-pipe impinged little jets of flame upon the yellow ring. "An' the galloot that come in this afternoon said, 'I always find the work turned out of this shop ah—excellent, ah—tip-top, as good as anything I ever bought in the Old Country, don'tcherknow.' Yah! Gimme silver, that's all. Gimme a butterfly buckle to make, or a monogram to saw out, an' I wouldn't call the Pope my uncle." His eye lifted from his work and rested on a broken gold brooch, beautiful with plaited hair under a glass centre. "An' that fussy old wood-hen'll be in, first thing to-morrow, askin' for 'the memento of my poor dear 'usband, my child, the one with the 'air in it'—carrotty 'air. An' those two bits of 'air-pins that want them silver bangles by ten o'clock, they'll be here punctual. I'm just fair drove silly with badgerin' wimmen. I'm goin' ratty with worry. When the boss comes back from his spree, I'll give 'im a bit o' my mind. I'll tell 'im, if he must go on a bend he should wait till the proper time—Christmas, Anniversary of the Settlement, Easter, or even a Gov'ment Holiday. But at a time like this, when the town's fair drippin' with dollars ... stupid ole buck-rabbit! An' when he can't be found, the mutton-headed bobbies suddenly become suspicious. It's no good for me to tell 'em it's his periodical spree—they say it's robbery. Oh, well, I back my opinion, that's all. But whether it's the one, or the other, of all the chuckle-headed old idiots that ever was born"—Tap-tap. It was not the noise of Jake's hammer, but a gentle knocking at the side-door of the workshop.
The apprentice rose quietly, and put his ear to the key-hole. Tap-tap-tap.
"Open the door," said a soft voice. "It's me. I want to come in."
"Very likely you do. There's many more'd like to come in here."
"Is that you, Jake?"
"Never you mind. Who're you?"
"You weasel-faced young imp, am I to burst open my own door?"
The mystery was at an end. In a moment, the bolt was withdrawn and Benjamin Tresco stood in his workshop.
But before he spoke, he bolted the door behind him. Then he said, "Well?"
"So you've come back?" said Jake, fiercely.
"Looks like it," said the goldsmith. "How's things?"
"Gone to the devil. How d'you expect me to keep business goin' when you go on a howling spree, for weeks?"
"Spree? Me? My dear innocent youth, I have clean forgotten the very taste of beer. At this present moment, I stand before you a total abstainer of six weeks' duration. And yet what I ask for is not beer, but bread—I'm as hungry as a wolf; I've hardly eaten anything for two days. What have you got in the house?"
"I don't 'ave no time to cook. When I can find time, I go up to The Lucky Digger and get a good square feed. D'you expect me to do two men's work and cook as well?"
Tresco undid the small "swag" which he carried, and before the astonished eyes of his apprentice he disclosed fully a hundred ounces of gold.
"Jee-rusalem! Blame me if you ain't been diggin'!"
"That's so, my son."
"And the police are fair ratty because they thought you were hiding from the Law."
"So I am, my son."
"Solemn fact—there's a writ out against me."
"I ain't got a mind to be gaoled at such a glorious time in the history of Timber Town. I want to get more gold, stacks of it."
"An' where do I come in?"
"You come in as owner of this business by and by—if you're a good boy."
"Huh! I want to go diggin' too."
"All in good time, my energetic youth, all in good time. But for the present, give me some food."
"Didn't I tell you there isn't any?" yelled Jake.
"Very good, very good, but don't talk so loud. Take this half-crown, and go to The Lucky Digger. Tell the young lady in the bar that you have a friend who's dying of hunger. Tell her to fill a jug with a quart of beer, and a basket with tucker of sorts. And hurry back; for, by my sacred aunt, if I don't get something better presently, I shall turn cannibal and eat you!"
While the boy was gone, Tresco weighed the gold that lay on the bench. It came to 111 ounces, and this, valued at the current price of gold from Bush Robin Creek—the uninitiated are possibly unaware that as one star differeth from another star in glory, so the gold from one locality differs in price from that found in another—came to L430 2s. 6d.
Finding the safe locked, Tresco, whistling softly, turned down the gas, and sat at his bench in the gloom.
When Jake returned he was cautiously admitted, the door was re-bolted, and the gas was turned up sufficiently to show the goldsmith the way to his mouth.
"Where's the key of the safe, Jake?"
"Where it ought to be."
"You young imp, anty up."
Jake produced the key from his pocket. "D'you suppose I label it and put it in the winder?"
"Put this gold away—there's 111 ounces. I'll bring some more next time I come. Now." He lifted the jug, and drank. When he set it down again, it was half empty. "That's what I call a moment of bliss. No one who hasn't spent a month in the bush knows what a thirst really is; he ain't got no conception what beer means. Now, what's in the basket?" He lifted the white napkin that covered his supper. "Ham!" A beautific smile illumined his face. "Ham, pink and white and succulent, cut in thin slices by fair hands. Delicious! And what's this? Oyster patties, cold certainly, but altogether lovely. New bread, cheese, apple turn-over! Couldn't be better. The order of the menu is; first, entrees—that means oysters—next, ham, followed by sweets, and topped off with a morsel of cheese. Stand by and watch me eat—a man that has suffered semi-starvation for nearly a month."
Jake lit a cigarette, an indulgence with which in these days of worry and stress he propitiated his overwrought nerves. He drew in the smoke with all the relish of a connoisseur, and expelled it through his nostrils.