"Is this gold the result of six weeks' work?" he asked.
"No, barely one week's," answered Tresco, his mouth full of ham and new bread.
"Crikey!" Jake inhaled more cigarette smoke. "'Seems to me our potty little trade ain't in it. I move that we both go in for the loocrative profession of diggin'."
"Mumf—mumf—muff—muff." The ham had conquered Tresco's speech.
"Jes' so. That's what I think, boss."
Benjamin gave a gulp. "I won't take you," he said, as plainly as possible.
"Oh, you won't?"
"Then, suppose I go on my own hook, eh?"
"You've got to stop and look after this shop. You're apprenticed to me."
"If a man chooses to spend a little holiday in the bush, is his apprentice to suppose his agreement's cancelled? Not a bit of it."
"An' suppose a man chooses to spend a little holiday in gaol, what then?"
"That's outside the sphere of practical politics, my son."
"I don't know so much about that. I think different. I think we'll cry quits. I think I'll go along with you, or likely there'll be trouble."
"What sort of trouble, jackanapes?"
"Why, crimson trouble."
"I've got you tied hand and foot, boss. You can take that from me."
"Is that so? What do you think you can do?"
"I intend to go along with you."
"But I start to-night. If I can scrape together enough food to last a week or two. But I'll take you along. You shall come. I'll show you how I live. Now, then, what d'you say?" There was a twinkle in Tresco's eye, and the corners of his mouth twitched with merriment.
"Think I don't know when I've got a soft thing on?" Jake took off his apron, and hung it on a nail. "Shan't want that, for a month or two anyway." Then he faced the "boss" with, "Equal whacks, you old bandicoot. I'll find the tucker, and we'll share the gold."
Tresco's smile broke into a hearty laugh. He put his hands to his sides, threw back his head, and fairly chortled.
"I don't see any joke." Jake looked at his master from beneath his extravagant eyebrows.
"You'll ... you'll get the tucker ... see?"
"Why, yes—how's a man to live?"
"An' you'll help swag it?"
"You'll implicitly obey your lawful lord and master, out on the wallaby?"
"'Spect I'll 'ave to."
"You won't chiack or poke borak at his grey and honoured head when, by reason of his endowment of adipose tissue, his wind gives out?"
"Oh, talk sense. Adipose rabbits' skins!"
"All these several and collective points being agreed upon, my youthful Adonis, I admit you into partnership."
"Done," said the apprentice, with emphasis. "It's a bargain. Go and sleep, and I'll fossick round town for tucker—I'm good for a sixty-pound swag, and you for eighty. So-long."
He turned off the gas, took the key of the side door, which he locked after him, and disappeared, whilst Tresco groped his way to bed.
The surreptitious goldsmith had slept for two hours when the stealthy apprentice let himself quietly into the dark and cheerless house. He bore on his back a heavy bag of flour, and carried on his arm a big basket filled with minor packages gleaned from sleepy shopkeepers, who had been awakened by the lynx-eyed youth knocking at their backdoors.
In the cheerful and enlivening company of an alarum clock, Jake retired to his couch, which consisted of a flax-stuffed mattress resting on a wooden bedstead, and there he quickly buried himself in a weird tangle of dirty blankets, and went to sleep.
At the conclusion of three brief hours, which to the heavy sleeper appeared as so many minutes, the strident alarum woke the apprentice to the stress of life. By the light of a tallow candle he huddled on his clothes, and entered the goldsmith's chamber.
"Now, then, boss, three o'clock! Up you git!"
Benjamin rubbed his eyes, sat up in bed, and yawned.
"''Tis the voice of the sluggard, I heard him complain: You've waked me too soon—I must slumber again.'
What's the time, Jake?"
"Ain't I tellin' you?—three o'clock. If we don't want to be followed by every digger in the town, we must get out of it before dawn."
"Wise young Solomon, youth of golden promise. Go and boil the kettle. We'll have a snack before we go. Then for fresh fields and pastures new."
The goldsmith bounded out of bed, with a buoyancy which resembled that of an india-rubber ball.
"Ah-ha! 'Under the greenwood tree Who loves to lie with me, And tune his merry note Unto the sweek bird's throat, Come hither.' You see, Jakey, mine, we were eddicated when we was young." Benjamin had jumped into his clothes as he talked. "A sup and a snack, and we flit by the light of the moon."
"There ain't no moon."
"So much the better. We'll guide our steps by the stars' pale light and the beams of the Southern Cross."
By back lanes and by-roads the goldsmith and his boy slunk out of the town. At the mouth of the gorge where diggers' tents lined the road, they walked delicately, exchanging no word till they were deep in the solitude of the hills.
As the first streak of dawn pierced the gloom of the deep valley, they were wading, knee-deep, a ford of the river, whose banks they had skirted throughout their journey. On the further side the forest, dank, green, and dripping with dew, received them into its impenetrable shades, but still the goldsmith toiled on; his heavy burden on his back, and the panting, weary, energetic, enthusiastic apprentice following his steps.
Leaving the track, Tresco led the way up a steep gully, thickly choked with underscrub, and dark with the boughs of giant trees. Forcing their way through tangled supple-jacks and clinging "lawyer" creepers which sought to stay their progress, the wayfarers climbed till, as day dawned, they paused to rest their wearied limbs before a sheer cliff of rock.
"It's not very far now," said the goldsmith, as he wiped his dripping brow. "This is the sort of work to reduce the adipose tissue, my son. D'you think you could find your way here by yourself, indomitable Jakey?"
"Huh! 'Course," replied the breathless youth, proud to be his master's companion in such a romantic situation, and glorying in his "swag". "Is this your bloomin' camp?"
"No, sir." Tresco glanced up the face of the great limestone rock which barred their path. "Not exactly. We've got to scale this cliff, and then we're pretty well there."
A few supple-jacks hung down the face of the rock. These Tresco took in his hand, and twisted them roughly into a cable. "'Look natural, don't they?" he said. "'Look as if they growed t'other end, eh? Now, watch me." With the help of his rope of lianas he climbed up the rugged cliff, and when at the summit, he called to Jake to tie the "swags" to separate creepers. These he hoisted to the top of the cliff, and shortly afterwards the eager face of the apprentice appeared over the brow.
"Here we are," exclaimed Benjamin, "safe as a church. Pull up the supple-jacks, Jake."
With an enthusiasm which plainly betokened a mind dwelling on bushrangers and hidden treasure, the apprentice did as he was told.
Out of breath through his exertions, he excitedly asked, "What's the game, boss? Where's the bloomin' plant?"
"Plant?" replied the goldsmith.
"Yes, the gold, the dollars?"
"Yes, gold! 'Think I don't know? Theseyer rocks are limestone. Who ever saw gold in limestone formation? Eh?"
"How do you know it's limestone?"
"Yah! Ain't I bin down to the lime-kiln, by Rubens' wharf, and seen the lime brought over the bay? What's the game? Tell us."
"The thing that I'm most interested in, at this present moment,"—the goldsmith took up his heavy "swag"—"is tucker."
Without further words, he led the way between perpendicular outcrops of rocks whose bare, grey sides were screened by fuchsia trees, birch saplings, lance-wood, and such scrub as could take root in the shallow soil. Turning sharply round a projecting rock, he passed beneath a tall black birch which grew close to an indentation in the face of the cliff. Beneath the great tree the heels of the goldsmith crushed the dry, brown leaves deposited during many seasons; then in an instant he disappeared from the sight of the lynx-eyed Jake, as a rabbit vanishes into its burrow.
"Hi! Here! Boss! Where the dooce has the ole red-shank got too?"
A muffled voice, coming as from the bowels of the earth, said, "Walk inside. Liberty Hall.... Free lodging and no taxes."
Jake groped his way beneath the tree, surrounded on three sides by the limestone cliff. In one corner of the rock was a sharp depression, in which grew shrubs of various sorts. Dropping into this, the lad pushed his way through the tangled branches and stood before the entrance of a cave.
Inside Tresco held a lighted candle in his hand. In front of him stood Jake, spellbound.
Overhead, the ceiling was covered with white and glistening stalactites; underfoot, the floor was strewn with bits of carbonate and the broken bases of stalagmites, which had been shattered to make a path for the ruthless iconoclast who had made his home in this pearly-white temple, built without hands.
Tresco handed Jake another lighted candle.
"Allow me to introduce you, my admirable Jakey, to my country mansion, where I retire from the worry of business, and turn my mind to the contemplation of Nature. This is the entrance hall, the portico: observe the marble walls and the ceiling-decorations—Early English, perpendicular style."
Jake stood, open-mouthed with astonishment.
"Now we come to the drawing-room, the grand salon, where I give my receptions." Benjamin led the way through a low aperture, on either side of which stalactites and stalagmites had met, leaving a low doorway in the centre. Beyond this, the candles' dim light struggled for supremacy in a great hall, whose walls shone like crystal. On one side the calcareous encrustations had taken the form of a huge organ, cut as if out of marble, with pipes and key-board complete.
"Holee Christopher!" exclaimed the apprentice.
"Nature's handiwork," said the goldsmith. "Beautiful.... Been making, this thousand years, for me—an' you."
"Then I reckon Nature forgot the chimbley—it's as cold as the grave."
"On the contrary, there is a chimney; but Nature doesn't believe in a fireplace in each room. Proceed. I will now show you my private apartments. Mind the step."
He led the way down a dark passage, strewn with huge pieces of limestone, over which master and apprentice scrambled, into an inner chamber, where the white walls were grimed with smoke and the black embers of an extinguished fire lay in the middle of the floor.
"My sanctum sanctorum," said the goldsmith, as he fixed the butt of his candle to a piece of rock by means of drops of melted wax poured from the lighted end. "This is where I meditate; this is where I mature my plans for the betterment of the human species."
"Rats! You're darn well hidin' from the police."
"My son, you grieve me; your lack of the poetic shocks me."
"Oh, garn! You robbed those mails, that's about the size of it."
"Robbed?—no, sir. Examined?—yes, sir. I was the humble instrument in the hands of a great rascal, a man of unprincipled life, a man who offered bribes, heavy bribes—an' I took 'em. I had need of money."
"First comes the bender and then the bribe. I know, boss. But where d'you get the gold?"
Benjamin stooped over a mass of bedding, rolled up in a tent-fly, and brought to light a canvas bag.
"My private store," he said, "mine and Bill's. We go whacks. We're doing well, but expediency demands that for a short while I should retire into private life. And, by the hokey, I can afford it."
"Gold?" asked Jake, peering at the bag.
"Nuggets," said the goldsmith.
Jake dropped his "swag" and felt the weight of the bag.
"It gits over me," he said. "Either you stole it, or you dug it. I give it up. Any'ow, there it is."
Benjamin smiled his broadest, and began to rake together the charred sticks scattered over the floor.
"This is my only trouble," he said. "To yank my firewood in here is heart-breaking; that and swagging tucker from town."
"Where's the smoke go to?" Jake looked into the inky blackness above.
"Don't know. Never asked. I guess it finds its way somewhere, for after I've hung my blanket over the doorway and lighted the fire, I sometimes notice that the bats which live overhead buzz round and then clear out somewhere. I imagine that there's a passage which connects with the open air. Some day, perhaps, an over-earnest policeman will drop on our heads. Then there'll be a picnic, eh?"
"What I want, just at present," said Jake, "is a drink."
"That's another of my troubles," replied the goldsmith. "I have to fetch my water from outside, but it's lovely water when you've got it."
He placed his bag of gold in a corner. "Don't put all your eggs into one basket," he said. "I believe in Jacob's plan—divide your belongings. If I'm caught here, I have the plant in town. If I'm caught in town, I have the plant here. Anyhow, the police can't get everything."
"An' where do I come in?" The eyes of the rabbit-faced youth peered into his master's.
"I don't precisely know. I don't think you come in at all."
"Then what about that gold in the safe, boss?"
"The key is here." Benjamin slapped his pocket gently. "But, if you're a good boy you shall have my business, and be the boss goldsmith of Timber Town."
"Perfectly honest. If I get away with my gold, all I leave behind is yours."
"Shake hands on it."
"Certainly," said the goldsmith, and he held out his hand.
Jake took it in his.
"It's a bargain," he said.
"That's right; a bargain."
"I'll help you to get away with your gold, and you'll leave me your business, lock, stock, and barrel."
"That's exactly it," said the goldsmith, taking up an empty "billy" from the ground. "Now we'll go and get the water for our tea."
A case of bottling-plums, the bloom still on their purple cheeks, stood on the kitchen table. Beside it stood Rose, her arms bare to the elbows, and a snowy apron flowing from breast to ankle. Marshalled in regular array in front of the case, stood a small army of glass jars, which presently were to receive the fruit.
In a huge preserving-pan a thick syrup was simmering on the stove; and Rose had just begun to place the fruit in this saccharine mixture, when a succession of knocks, gentle but persistent, was heard coming from the front door.
"Oh, bother," said Rose, as she paused with a double handful of plums half way between the fruit-case and the stove. "Who can that be?"
Again the knocking resounded through the house.
"I suppose I must go," said Rose, placing the fruit carefully in the pan, and then, slipping off her flowing apron, she went hurriedly to the front door.
There stood the pretty figure of Rachel Varnhagen, dressed in billowy muslin, a picture hat which was adorned with the brightest of ribbons and artificial flowers, and the daintiest of shoes. Her sallow cheeks were tinged with a carmine flush, her pearly teeth gleamed behind a winning smile, and a tress of glossy hair, escaped from under her frail head-dress, hung bewitchingly upon her shoulder.
"Oh, how do you do?" she exclaimed effusively, as she closed her silk parasol. "I look an awful guy, I know; but there's such a wind, that I've almost been blown to pieces."
It was the first time that Rose's humble roof had had the privilege of sheltering the daughter of the rich Jew.
"I'm afraid I hardly expected you." The Pilot's daughter looked frankly and with an amused smile at Rachel. "I'm in the middle of bottling fruit. Do you mind coming into the kitchen?—the fruit will spoil if I leave it."
Leading the way, she was followed by her pretty caller, who, in all her glory, seated herself on a cane-bottomed chair in the kitchen, and commenced to gossip.
"I've such news," she said, tapping the pine floor with the ferrule of her parasol. Rose continued to transfer her plums to the preserving-pan. "I expect you heard of the dreadful experience I had with that horrid, drunken digger who caught me on the foot-bridge—everybody heard of it. Who do you think it was that saved me?"
She waited for Rose to risk a guess.
"I suppose," said the domestic girl, her arms akimbo as she faced her visitor, "I should think it ought to have been Mr. Zahn."
"Oh, him!" exclaimed Rachel, disgustedly. "I've jilted him—he was rude to Papa."
"Then who could it be?" Rose placed more plums in the preserving-pan.
"You ought to know." Just the trace of a pout disfigured Rachel's pretty mouth. "He's a friend of yours, I believe; a very great friend, indeed."
"I've a good many friends." The preserving-pan was now full, and Rose sat down, to wait a few minutes till the fruit should be ready for bottling.
"Papa is simply in love with him. He says he can never repay him. And how he laughed when I told him that my gallant rescuer threw the digger into the water! Can't you guess who it is, now?"
Rose was silent.
"Really, I think this stupid cooking and jam-making has made you silly. Why don't you work in the morning, and go out in the afternoon to see your friends?"
Rose turned her blue eyes on her visitor. They distinctly said, "What business is that of yours?" But her lips said, "Now, really, how can I?"
"When a girl's engaged"—Rachel sighed as she spoke—"she doesn't care much about society."
"At least that was the way with me." Rachel's carmine lips gave a little quiver at the corners. "I suppose you feel like that."
"Me? I feel just as usual."
"But you're so English, nothing would disturb you."
Rose laughed aloud. "I should shriek if a digger touched me," she said.
"But it was almost worth the fright, dear." Rachel leaned forward confidentially. "First, he put me on his horse, and we forded the river together; then, he took me home and was so kind. I do think you're such a lucky girl."
Suddenly Rachel's manner altered. Bursting into a rippling laugh, she raised her parasol, and skittishly poked Rose in the ribs.
"How very close some people are," she exclaimed. "But you might as well own the soft impeachment, and then all the girls could congratulate you."
The thought went through Rose's mind, that if the good wishes of her acquaintances were like this girl's perhaps they might well be spared. She was completing her task by ladling the plums from the big pan into the array of jars, and she bent over her work in order to hide her annoyance.
"And I hear he's so rich," continued Rachel. "He's had such wonderful luck on the diggings. Papa says he's one of the best marks in Timber Town—barring old Mr. Crewe, of course."
Rose gazed, open-eyed, at her visitor.
"How much do you think he is worth?" asked Rachel, unabashed.
"I really don't know. I have no notion whom you mean."
Again the rippling laugh rang through the kitchen.
"Really, this is too funny. Own up: wasn't Mr. Scarlett very lucky?"
"Oh! Mr. Scarlett? I believe he got some gold—he showed me some."
"Surely, he had it weighed?"
"I suppose so—I thought there was something in the paper about it."
"Was all that gold Mr. Scarlett's?"
"Yes, about as much as would fill this saucepan. He poured it out on the dining-room table, and Captain Sartoris and my father stared at it till their eyes almost dropped out."
"You lucky girl! They say he gave you the dandiest ring."
Rose mutely held out her unadorned fingers. When they had been closely inspected, she said, "You see, this is all rubbish about my being engaged. As for Mr. Scarlett, I have reason to think that he left his heart behind him in the Old Country."
"Confidences, my dear. If he has told you that much, it won't take you long to hook him. We giddy girls have no chance against you deep, demure stay-at-homes. The dear men dance and flirt with us, but they don't propose. How I wish I had learned to cook, or even to bottle plums! Fancy having a man all to yourself in a kitchen like this; making a cake, with your sleeves tucked up to the elbows, and no one to interrupt—why, I guarantee, he'd propose in ten minutes." She tapped her front teeth with her finger. "I have to go to the dentist to-morrow. I do hate it so, but I've got to have something done to one of my front teeth. I'm thinking of getting the man to fill it with gold, and put a small diamond in the middle. That ought to be quite fetching, don't you think?"
"It certainly would be unique."
"I think I'll go along to Tresco's shop, and get the stone."
"But don't you think the sight of a diamond in a tooth would pall after a while? or perhaps you might loosen it with a bit of biscuit, and swallow it. A diet of diamonds would pall, too, I fancy."
"It's not the expense." Rachel pouted as she spoke. "The question is whether it's done among smart people."
"You could but try—your friends would soon tell you."
"I believe it's quite the thing over in Melbourne."
"Then why not in Timber Town?"
"But perhaps it's only amongst actresses that it's 'the thing.'"
"So that the glitter of their smiles may be intensified?"
Rachel had risen from her seat. "I must be going," she said. "I looked in for a minute, and I've stopped half-an-hour."
"Then won't you stay just a little longer—I'm going to make some tea."
"It's very tempting." Rachel took off her gloves, and displayed her begemmed fingers. "I think I must stop."
Rose infused the tea in a brown earthenware pot, and filled two china cups, in the saucers of which she placed two very old ornamented silver teaspoons.
The two girls sat at opposite sides of the white-pine table, in complete contrast; the one dark, the other fair; the one arrayed in purple and fine linen, the other dressed in plain starched print and a kitchen apron; the one the spoilt pet of an infatuated father, the other accustomed to reproof and domestic toil.
But they met on common ground in their taste for tea. With lips, equally pretty, they were sipping the fragrant beverage, when a hoarse voice resounded through the house.
"Rosebud, Rosebud, my gal! Where's my slippers? Danged if I can see them anywhere."
Into the kitchen stumped the Pilot of Timber Town, weary from his work. Catching sight of Rachel, he paused half-way between the door and the table. "Well, well," he said, "I beg pardon, I'm sure—bellowing like an old bull walrus at my dar'ter. But the gal knows her old Dad—don't you, Rosebud? He don't mean nothing at all."
In a moment, Rose had the old man's slippers in her hand, and the Pilot sat down and commenced to take off his boots and to put on the more comfortable footgear.
Rachel was on her feet in a moment.
"I must be going," she said. "Which way do I get out?"
"Rosebud, show the young lady the door—she's in a hurry." The Pilot never so much as took his eyes off the boot that he was unlacing.
Leading the way through the intricate passages, Rose conducted Rachel to the front door, and came back, smiling.
"Now, what does she want?" asked the Pilot. "She's a mighty strange craft to be sailing in these waters. There's a queer foreign rake about her t'gallant mast that's new to me. Where's she owned, Rosebud?"
"That's Miss Varnhagen."
"What! the Jew's dar'ter? Well, well. That accounts for the cut of her jib. Old Varnhagen's dar'ter? 'Want to sell anything?"
Rose laughed. "Oh, no. She came, fishing."
"Fishing for news. She's very anxious to know how much gold Mr. Scarlett has got; in fact, she's very anxious to know all about Mr. Scarlett."
The old Pilot laughed, till the shingles of the roof were in danger of lifting. "The wimmen, oh! the wimmen!" he said. "They're deep. There's no sounding 'em. No lead'll bottom them. You'll have to protect that young man, my gal; protect him from scheming females. Once they can lure him on a lee shore, they'll wreck him to pieces and loot the cargo. So she wanted to know how he was freighted? He's down to Plimsoll, my gal; down to Plimsoll with gold. A mighty fine cargo for wreckers!"
* * *
At the very time that Rachel was walking out of the garden of roses, Scarlett was turning into The Lucky Digger. He had come in from the "bush," weary and tired, and was met in the passage by a man who packed stores to the new gold-field. In the bar stood Isaac Zahn, who was flirting with the bar-maid. But the regal dispenser of liquors responded to the young clerk's sallies with merely the brief politeness which she was paid to show towards all the customers of the inn. He could extort no marked encouragement, in spite of every familiarity and witticism at his command.
Turning his back on the Israelite, Scarlett gave all his attention to the packer. "The track's clear to the field," said Jack, "all but four miles at the further end. In a few days, you'll be able to take your horses through easily."
"My rate is L15 per ton," said the man.
"The Syndicate won't quarrel with that." Jack's head turned involuntarily, as an unusual sound occurred in the bar-room.
Zahn, leaning over the counter, had caught Gentle Annie roughly by the wrist. There was a struggle, the crash of falling glass, and a scream.
From the fair arm of the bar-maid blood was flowing.
In a moment, Scarlett was in the bar-room. He seized the spruce bank-clerk by the collar, and dragged him into the passage.
Zahn kicked and swore; but, setting his teeth, Scarlett pulled his struggling victim towards the front-door; and there, with a suddenness which would have done credit to a field-gun, he kicked the Jew into the street.
The trajectory was low, but Zahn, with legs and arms extended, shot across the asphalt pavement, and fell sprawling at the feet of a dainty figure dressed in muslins and ribbons of rainbow hue.
It was Rachel Varnhagen, tripping home to her tea. With a little scream of elegant surprise, she dropped her parasol, and gazed at the prostrate form of her jilted lover.
Gathering himself up stiffly, Isaac stood, whimpering, before her; his whining interspersed with unprintable invective.
Scarlett, however, heedless of the anathemas of the stricken clerk, stepped from the door of The Lucky Digger, picked up the fallen parasol, and handed it politely to Rachel.
In less than a moment she recognised him.
"Oh, thanks," she said. "It's really awfully good of you."
"What? To kick this unmitigated blackguard?"
"I've no doubt he deserved it," she said, glancing with disgust at the clerk. "It's charming of you to pick up my sunshade. I hope you're coming up to see us—Papa wants to see you awfully. It would be lovely if you would come to-night."
"Thank you. I'll try. I hope you are none the worse for the fright you got."
"Thanks, I'm not dead. What a terrible man you are—I wouldn't like to quarrel with you. Say eight o'clock."
"Very good, eight."
"Don't forget. I shall expect you."
Zahn, who heard all the conversation, ground his teeth, and slunk away. Rachel smiled her farewell and bowed to Jack, who lifted his hat, and went into the inn, to see what could be done for the bar-maid's injured wrist.
A Small but Important Link in the Story.
The Timber Town Club was filled with ineffable calm. The hum of convivial voices was hushed, the clicking billiard-balls were still, no merry groups of congenial spirits chatted in ante-room, or dining-room. All was strangely quiet, for most of the members were at the diggings, and the times were too pregnant with business to warrant much conviviality.
Scarlett and Mr. Crewe alone sat in the reading-room, where the magazines from England lay in perfect order on little tables, and steel engravings, of which the Club was proud, hung upon the walls. Jack was enjoying the luxury of a big easy chair, and the Father of Timber Town sat upright in another.
"I was asked out to spend the evening, yesterday," said Jack, lazily.
"Indeed, asked to spend the evening?" replied the alert old gentleman. "I can't say that I see anything remarkable in that, Scarlett."
Jack smiled. "By a most charming young lady, I assure you."
"Ah, that is another matter, quite a different matter, my dear sir."
"Ostensibly, it was to meet her father, but hang me if the old gentleman put in an appearance!"
"Ho-ho! Better, Scarlett, better still. And what did you do, you rascal?"
"I did nothing. It was the young lady who took up the running."
"But wasn't she provided with a judicious Mama, in the background somewhere?"
"No, a calamity seems to have befallen the Mama. She's non est."
"That's very good. The girl depends for protection solely upon her Papa?"
"I remarked that, and said, 'Your Father will hardly approve of my coming to see you in his absence.' 'Oh, you needn't mind that,' she said—'he trusts me implicitly. And as for you—didn't you save me, the other night?' You see, I found a drunken digger molesting her, and threw him into the river. But I haven't so much as seen the old boy yet."
"Quite so, quite so, but I want to hear about the girl—the father will turn up in due time, and as for the digger, he at least would get a bath."
"I waited for her loving parent to come home, as it was supposed he wanted to see me."
"I see; I see: and what did he say when he came?"
"He didn't say anything."
"That was very churlish conduct, don't you think Scarlett?"
"But, you see, he didn't come."
"Didn't come home? Now, look here, Scarlett; now, look here, my good fellow. You're getting into bad ways; you're courting temptation. By Jupiter! they'll be marrying you next. They will, sir; they'll be marrying you, before you know where you are; marrying you in a church. And if they can't get you to church, they'll marry you before the Registrar; by Jupiter! they will."
"But she's a pretty girl, remember that."
"She may be the most monstrous pretty girl, for all I care. But don't you let her hook you, my boy. Women are all fudge, sir. Girls are mostly dolls dressed in feathers and fine clothes. But I grant you that there's some dignity in a woman who's a mother; but by forty she becomes old, and then she must be a plaguey nuisance. No, Scarlett, I never married, thank God. Fancy being at the beck and call of a crotchety old beldame, at my time of life. No, sir; I never knew what it was to be questioned and badgered when I came home at night, no matter if it was two in the morning. I can do as I like, sir: I need not go home at all. I'm a free man. Now, take my advice, Scarlett; be a free man too."
"But you never could have been in love, Mr. Crewe."
"Perhaps not; very likely not."
Mr. Crewe had stood during the latter part of the dialogue, that he might the more emphatically denounce matrimony; and Scarlett rose from his comfortable chair, and stood beside him.
"But do as I did, my dear sir"—the Father of Timber Town placed his hand on Jack's sleeve—"and nothing disastrous will happen. Whenever a young woman became very pressing, what do you think I used to do?"
"I don't know. I don't see how I can tell. Perhaps you told her you had an incurable disease, and had one foot in the grave."
"No, sir; that would have made her marry me the quicker—in order to get my money. No, I used to propose solemnly and in due form—on behalf of my brother Julius. I would say, 'My dear young lady, my brother Julius ought to be married, and you are the girl to suit him. He is delicate, affectionate in disposition, domesticated—quite the reverse of myself, my dear—and you are the beau ideal companion for him.' But do you believe that Julius is married? No, sir; not a bit of it; no more married than I am—no, sir; as confirmed an old bachelor as ever you saw. Very good, wasn't it? Just the way to deal with them, eh? Adopt the plan, Jack; adopt the plan, and you'll escape as certainly as I did."
"Look here," said Scarlett, "we'll go and see the banker; we ought to have seen him this morning."
The old gentleman chuckled. He perceived that his young friend had changed the subject of conversation; but he also agreed that business should come before gossip.
It was but a brief walk from the Club to the Kangaroo Bank.
"You're a god-send to this town, Jack; a perfect god-send. Do you know that since you discovered this gold, sir, my properties in Timber Town have increased twenty-five per cent. in value? And do you know that I believe they will increase cent. per cent.? Imagine it, sir. Why, we shall all be rich men."
They passed out into the bright street, where the gaily-painted shops shone in the blazing sun and the iron roofs of the verandahs ticked with the midday heat. The door of the Bank stood open, that the outer air might circulate freely through the big building. The immaculately-attired clerk stood behind his counter, with a big piece of plaster on his forehead; but Scarlett, taking no notice of the scowl he received from the dark-featured Zahn, knocked at the door of the Manager's room.
Within the financial sanctum, a little shrivelled-up man sat at a large table which was placed in the middle of the room. His face was clean-shaven but for a pair of grizzled mutton-chop whiskers, and as he bent over his papers he showed a little bald patch on the top of his crown.
Scarlett and Mr. Crewe stood side by side, in front of him.
"I have come from the diggings," said Jack, "and have called to ask ..."
"Oh ... How do you do, Mr. Crewe? Be seated, sir.... Be seated, both of you.... A lovely day, Mr. Crewe; a perfectly beautiful day. Take a seat, sir, I beg."
But as the chairs stood a long way off against the wall, old Mr. Crewe and Jack only glanced at them.
"I've come to ask," continued Scarlett, "that you will establish a branch of your Bank on Bush Robin Creek."
The Manager looked first at Scarlett and then at Mr. Crewe. "You're very good," he said. "Establish a branch on the diggings? Gentlemen, do be seated." So saying, he journeyed to a far wall, and returned with a couple of chairs, which he dragged after him to where his visitors stood.
"It would be a great convenience to the diggers," said Jack, "to sell their gold on the field, and receive drafts on your Bank. Then, they would travel with more safety and less fear of being robbed."
"It's worth thinking of," said the Manager, when he had seen that both Scarlett and Mr. Crewe were seated.
"It should be profitable to the Bank," said Mr. Crewe, "and that, sir, is your main consideration."
"The track will be completed in a few days," Scarlett remarked, "and your agent couldn't possibly lose his way in the bush."
"Could not lose his way? Exactly. It would be very awkward if he were to get lost, with L20,000 in his possession."
"I can imagine what sort of a losing it would be considered," said Mr. Crewe, laughing.
"How far is it to the field?" asked the Manager.
"As the crow flies, about forty miles," replied Jack, "but by the track, some eight or ten miles more."
"The difficulty will be the escort," said the Manager. "There must be an escort to convey gold to town. If the police, now, would give assistance, it could be managed."
"Failing them," said Jack, "the diggers would be only too glad to provide an escort themselves."
The banker smiled. "I was imagining that the Government might undertake the transportation."
"This is a detail," said Mr. Crewe. "It could be arranged when your agent wished to come to town with all the gold he had bought on the field."
"I make the proposal to you on behalf of the syndicate which I represent," said Jack. "There is a demand for a branch of your Bank on Bush Robin Creek: communication is now easy, and the field is developing fast."
"I shall see to it, gentlemen; I shall do my best to oblige you."
"And to benefit your institution," interjected Mr. Crewe.
The Manager smiled the sycophantic smile of one who worships Mammon. "I shall endeavour to meet the difficulty, Mr. Crewe. We shall see what can be done." He rang his bell, and a clerk appeared. "Mr. Zahn is not at the counter to-day," he said.
"No, sir," said the clerk; "he is buying gold."
"Very good; send him to me," said the Manager, and Isaac was quickly summoned.
"I shall require you to proceed to the diggings at Bush Robin Creek," said the Manager, addressing the gold-clerk. "These gentlemen have made representations to me which show that there is considerable business to be done there by buying gold. You will hold yourself in readiness to start in a couple of days. Does that suit you, sir?" he added, turning to Scarlett.
"Admirably," replied Jack. "I'll return to-morrow, and shall tell the diggers that your agent is coming."
"But why should you not travel together?" said the Manager. "You could show Mr. Zahn the way."
Isaac looked at Scarlett, and Scarlett looked at him.
"I think I could find my way alone," said Zahn.
Jack smiled. "I shall be only too glad to give any assistance I can; but if Mr. Zahn prefers to travel by himself, of course there is the bare chance that he might get off the track and be lost."
"I'll risk it," said the Jew. "I'd rather get lost than be thrown over a precipice."
"Dear me, dear me," said Mr. Crewe, his voice and gesture expressive of the utmost astonishment. "This looks bad, Jack; this is a very bad beginning."
"You mean that you don't quite appreciate this gentleman's overtures?" asked the Manager.
Zahn was silent.
"We had a small difference in a hotel," said Jack. "But for my part I am quite willing to let bygones be bygones."
Zahn scowled. "That may be so," he said, "but I should prefer to travel alone."
"Dear, dear; well, well," said the Father of Timber Town. "But, after all, this is a mere matter of detail which can be settled by and by. If you go to the diggings, sir"—he turned his benignant gaze on the clerk—"you will not only be in a most responsible position, but you will be able to do such profitable business for your Bank, sir, that you will probably earn promotion."
"It's settled," said the Manager. "We shall send a representative, and I hope that the arrangement will be satisfactory to all parties. I hope you are contented, Mr. Crewe."
"Perfectly, my dear sir, perfectly," said the Father of Timber Town.
"Then you may consider the thing done," said the Manager; and ushering his visitors from the room he conducted them to the garish street.
"I jest walked in," said Dolphin, "an' I says, 'About thisyer gold-escort: when does it start?' I says. The shrivelled party with the whiskers looks at me acrost the counter, an' e' says, 'What business is that of yours, my man?' 'None,' I says, ''xcept me an' my mate is nervous of swaggin' our gold to town ourselves.' 'Don't you bother about that,' 'e says. 'All you've got to do is to sell your gold to our agent on the field, and leave the rest to him.' The escort will leave reg'lar, accordin' to time-table; so we can stick it up, sure as Gawd made little apples."
"And what about goin' through the Bank?" asked Sweet William.
"Now I ask you," said Dolphin, "what's the use of messing with the Bank, when we can clean out the gold-escort, an' no one the wiser?"
"Same here. My opinion," said Gentleman Carnac.
"I'm slick agin letting the Bank orf," growled Garstang. "Why not let the escort get its gold to the Bank, and then nab everything in the show. The original plan's the best."
"I gave you credit for more sense, Garstang." The leader of the gang looked darkly at his subordinate. "I gave you credit for knowing more of your trade."
"More credit, eh?" asked the man with the crooked mouth. "For why?"
The four rascals were in the cottage where they had met before, and the room reeked with the smoke of bad tobacco.
"Why?" replied Dolphin. "Because you're the oldest hand of the lot, an' you've been in the business all your life."
"Jes' so," said Garstang, with an evil smile. "'Xcept when I've bin the guest of the Widow."
"Which has been pretty frequent," interjected Sweet William.
"To clean the Bank out is easy enough," said Dolphin: "the trouble is to get away with the stuff. You ought to see that with half an eye. To stick up the escort requires a little skill, a little pluck; but as for gettin' away with the gold afterwards, that's child's play."
"Dead men don't tell no tales," remarked Sweet William.
"But their carcases do," objected Garstang.
"You beat everything!" exclaimed the leader, growing almost angry. "Ain't there such a thing as a shovel? No wonder you were copped pretty often by the traps, Garstang."
"You two men wrangle like old women," said Carnac. "Drop it. Tell us what's the first thing to do."
"To go an' look at the country," answered Dolphin.
"That's it.... Go it.... Dolphin controls the whole push.... Jest do as 'e tells." Garstang was evidently annoyed that the leadership of the murderous gang, which had once been his, had passed out of his hands.
Dolphin took no notice of the remarks. "We shall have plenty time to get to work, 'cause the Bank can't bring the gold to town till it's bought it, and it can't begin to buy it till the agent reaches the field, an' he only started to-day."
"Every blessed thing's ready," chimed in Sweet William, who was evidently backing the new leader strongly. "Carny an' me's bin through the guns, an' they're all clean an' took to bits ready for putting in the swags. When they're packed, not a trap in the country but wouldn't take us for the garden variety of diggers, 2 dwts. to the dish, or even less. Quite mild, not to say harmless, gruel-fed, strictly vegetarian—a very useful an' respectable body of men."
Dolphin smiled at the young man's witticism. "It doesn't need for more than two to go," he said. "There's no use in making a public show of ourselves, like a bloomin' pack-train. Two's plenty."
"I'll stop at 'ome," growled Garstang. "It's your faik, Dolphin—you planned it. Let's see you carry it out."
"I'll go," volunteered William. "Carny can stop behind an' help keep Garstang's temper sweet." In his hilarity he smacked the sinister-faced man on the back.
"Keep your hands t' yerself," snarled Garstang, with an oath. "You're grown too funny, these days—a man'd think you ran the show."
"Lord, what a mug!" Young William grimaced at Garstang's sour face. "But it'll sweeten up, ole man, when the gold's divided."
"We're wasting time," broke in Dolphin. "We must be getting along. Pack your swag, William: mine's at The Bushman's Tavern."
"Matilda is ready," exclaimed the youthful member of the gang, picking up his swag from the floor, and hitching it on to his shoulders. "Gimme that long-handled shovel, Carny—it'll look honest, though it weighs half a ton. Well, so-long."
He shook the bad-tempered Garstang, slapped Carnac on the back, and followed Dolphin from the cottage.
While this ominous meeting was being held, Jake Ruggles might have been observed to be acting in a most extraordinary manner in the back-garden of Tresco's shop. In the middle of a patch of ill-nourished cabbages which struggled for existence amid weeds and rubbish, he had planted a kitchen chair. On the back of this he had rested a long telescope, which usually adorned the big glass case which stood against the wall behind the shop-counter. This formidable instrument he had focussed upon the pinnacle of a wooded height, which stood conspicuous behind the line of foot-hills, and, as he peered at the distant mountain-top, he gave vent to a string of ejaculations, expressive of interest and astonishment.
Upon the top of the wooded mountain a large tree, which he could distinguish with the naked eye, stood conspicuous; a tree which spread its branches high above its fellows, and silhouetted its gigantic shape against the sky-line. Directing his telescope upon this remarkable giant of the forest, by aid of its powerful lenses he could see, projecting from the topmost branch, a flag, which upon further observation proved to be nothing less than the red ensign employed on merchant ships; and it was this emblem of the mercantile marine which so amazed and interested the youthful Ruggles.
"The ole beggar's got his pennant out," he exclaimed, as he smacked his lean shanks and again applied his eye to the telescope. "That means a spree for Benjamin. The crafty ole rascal'll be comin' in to-night. It means his tucker supply's given out, an' I must fly round for bacon, tea, sugar, bread, flour; an' I think I'll put in a tin or two of jam, by way of a treat."
He took a long look at the signal, and then shut up the telescope.
"It's quite plain," he soliloquised: "the old un's comin' in. I must shut up shop, and forage. Then, after dark, I'll take the tucker to the ford."
But, as though a sudden inspiration had seized him, he readjusted his instrument and once more examined the conspicuous tree.
"Why, he's there himself, sittin' in a forked bough, an' watchin' me through his glass." Placing the telescope gently on the ground, Jake turned himself into a human semaphore, and gesticulated frantically with his arms. "That ought to fetch 'im," and he again placed his eye to the telescope. "Yes, he sees. He's wavin' his 'at. Good old Ben. It's better than a play. Comic opera ain't in it with this sort o' game. He's fair rampin' with joy 'cause I seen 'im." Shutting up his instrument, Jake gave a last exhibition of mad gesticulations, danced a mimic war-dance, and then, with the big telescope under his arm, he went into the house.
It was a long stretch of tangled forest from the big tree to Tresco's cave, but the goldsmith was now an expert bushman, versed in the ways of the wilderness, active if not agile, enduring if still short of breath. His once ponderous form had lost weight, his once well-filled garments hung in creases on him, but a look of robust health shone in his eye and a wholesome tan adorned his cheek. He strode down the mountain as though he had been born on its arboreous slopes. Without pause, without so much as a false step, he traversed those wild gullies, wet where the dew still lay under the leafy screen of boughs, watered by streams which gurgled over mighty boulders—a wilderness where banks of ferns grew in the dank shade and the thick tangle of undergrowth blocked the traveller's way.
But well on into the afternoon Tresco had reached the neighbourhood of his cave, where his recluse life dragged out its weary days. His route lay for a brief mile along the track which led to the diggings. Reaching this cleared path, where locomotion was easier, the goldsmith quickened his pace, when suddenly, as he turned a corner, he came upon two men walking towards him from Timber Town.
In a moment he had taken cover in the thick underscrub which lined each side of the track, and quickly passing a little way in the direction from which he had come, he hid himself behind a dense thicket, and waited for the wayfarers to pass by.
They came along slowly, being heavy laden.
"I tell yer I seen the bloke on the track, Dolly, just about here," said the younger man of the two. "One moment he was here, next 'e was gone. Didn't you see 'm?"
"I must ha' bin lookin' t'other way, up the track," said the other. "I was thinkin' o' somethin'. I was thinkin' that this place, just here, was made a-purpose for our business. Now, look at this rock."
He led his companion to the inner edge of the track, where a big rock abutted upon the acute angle which the path made in circumventing the forest-clad hill-side. Placing their "swags" on the path the two men clambered up behind the rock, and Tresco could hear their conversation as he lay behind the thick scrub opposite them.
"See?" said Dolphin, as he pointed up the track in the direction of Timber Town. "From here you can command the track for a half-a-mile."
Sweet William looked, and said, "That's so—you can."
"Now, look this way," Dolphin pointed down the track in the direction of the diggings. "How far can you see, this way?"
"Near a mile," replied William.
"Very good. We plant two men behind this rock, and two over there in the bush, on the opposite side, and we can bail up a dozen men. Eh?"
"It's the place, the identical spot, Dolly; but I should put the other two men a little way up the track—we don't want to shoot each other."
"Just so. It would be like this: we have 'em in view, a long while before they arrive; they're coming up hill, tired, and goin' slow; we're behind perfect cover."
"I don't see how we can beat it, unless it is to put a tree across the road, just round the corner on the Timber Town side."
"No, no. That'd give the show away. That'd identify the spot. There're a hundred reasons against it. A tree across the track might stop the diggers as well, and the first party that come along would axe it through, and where would our log be then? It would never do. But let's get down, and have a drink. Thank Gawd, there's a bottle or two left in my swag."
Tresco saw them clamber down from the rock, and drink beer by the wayside. Only too quickly did he recognise these men, who looked like diggers but behaved so strangely; but the sight of the liquor was almost more than he could bear, yet not daring to stir a finger lest he should be discovered he was forced to see them drink it.
Indeed, they made quite a meal; eating bread and cheese, which they washed down with their favourite beverage. When the bottles were empty, Dolphin flung them into the bushes opposite to him, and the missiles, shivering into hundreds of pieces, sprinkled the goldsmith with broken glass.
He stifled a wordy protest which rose to his lips, and lay still; and shortly afterwards he had the pleasure of seeing the undesirable strangers hump their "swags" and retrace their steps towards Timber Town.
When they had disappeared, Tresco came from his hiding-place. He looked up and down the track. "Just so," he soliloquised, "half-a-mile this way, a mile that. Good cover.... Commanding position. What's their little game? It seems to me that there are bigger rascals than Benjamin in Timber Town." And with this salve applied to his conscience, the goldsmith pursued his way towards his dismal cavern.
The Goldsmith Comes to Town the Second Time.
Tresco stood in the yellow light of the paraffin lamp, and gazed in wonderment at Gentle Annie. He was a tattered and mournful object; his boots worn out, his trousers a marvel of patchwork, his coat a thing discoloured and torn, his hair and beard unshorn, himself a being unrecognisable by his former friends.
Gentle Annie's attitude betokened the greatest surprise. With her hands on her bosom, her lips parted, her cheeks pale, her eyes frightened, she stood, and timidly returned the gaze of the strange man before her.
"What do you want?" she asked, so soon as she could find her voice. "Why do you come here?"
"Don't be alarmed," said Benjamin reassuringly. "First, let me tell you that I'm your friend and protector. Do you forget Tresco the goldsmith?"
Gentle Annie gave vent to a little cry of astonishment.
"I am an outlaw,"—he spoke as if he were defending himself before his peers—"an outcast, a hunted dog. My own house is unsafe, so I came here for protection and a little comfort." He dropped suddenly into quite a sentimental tone of voice. "I haven't spoken to a soul, save my lad, for over six weeks. I'm a bit lonesome and miserable; and I badly need a well-cooked meal."
"But if you stop here"—Gentle Annie's ample bust rose and fell with agitation—"the police will catch you."
"They'd think of looking for me in the moon before they came here, my dear; besides I have no intention of stopping. I only want rest and food."
"I'll do what I can for you, but you must go almost directly."
"Why, certainly." Tresco sat down, and drew a deep breath. "It's good to look at a wholesome woman again—it seems years since I saw one."
A smile passed over Gentle Annie's face, and her eyes twinkled with merriment. "I see you're not cured of your old weakness," she said.
"No, my dear; and I hope I never shall be." Benjamin had rallied from his depression. "On the contrary, it increases."
They were a strange couple—the wild-looking man on one side of the table, and the fine figure of a woman who emitted a faint odour of patchouli, on the other.
"I suppose you know I'm my own mistress now."
"It looks like it. I understood something of the kind from Jake."
"I objected to be pulled about indiscriminately, so I left The Lucky Digger. A rough brute cut my arm with a broken glass." She rolled up her sleeve, and showed the scar of the newly-healed wound.
Benjamin took the soft, white arm in his hand, and gave it just the suspicion of a squeeze.
"I wish I'd bin there, my dear: I'd ha' chucked him through the window."
"Mr. Scarlett—who has been so lucky on the diggings—kicked him out of the house on to the pavement."
"Ah! but did he do the thing properly, scientifically?"
"I think so. And when he found the boss blaming me for the row, he turned on him like a tiger. But afterwards old Townson gave me the office, so I've retired into private life. Do you like my rooms?"
"A trifle small, don't you think?" said Benjamin.
"My dear, where you are it can't help being cozy."
"After that I'll get you something to eat. What do you say to grilled steak and onions?"
"Delicious! Couldn't be better."
Gentle Annie bustled out to the safe, at the back of the house, and returned with a dish of red and juicy meat.
"And to follow, you shall have stewed plums and cream."
"Better than ever," said Benjamin; his mouth watering behind his ragged beard.
"I believe I understand mankind," said Gentle Annie, going to a cupboard, whence she took a big bottle, which she placed on the table.
"If all the women in the world understood men as you do, my dear, we should have Arcadia here, instead of Gehennum."
"Instead of what?"
"Gehennum, my dear; a place where they drive men into the wilderness and cut them off from supplies, and they rot in damp caves, destitute of bread, beer, and even tobacco."
"No; I really can't supply that last. If I let you smoke, some old cat would come sniffing round to-morrow morning, and say, 'Phew! a man has been here.' Good food and drink you shall have, but no tobacco."
"But you'll let me wash?"
"Certainly. Cleanliness is next to godliness. If you can't have the one, I wouldn't bar you from the other." She led him to the door of her bedroom, and said, "Walk in."
The room was a dainty affair of muslin blinds and bed-hangings. To Benjamin it was a holy of holies dedicated to the sweet, the lovely, the inscrutable. All the feminine gear lying around, the little pots of powder and ointment, the strange medicaments for the hair, the mirrors, the row of little shoes, the bits of jewellery lying on fat pincushions, the skirts and wrappers and feminine finery hanging behind the door, these and fifty other things appealed to the softest spot in his susceptible nature. He took up the ewer, and poured water into the basin; but he was ashamed to place his dirty coat on a thing so clean as was the solitary dimity-covered chair, so he put the ragged garment on the floor. Then he took up a pink cake of soap, and commenced his ablutions.
A strong and agreeable odour tickled his olfactory nerves—the cooking had begun. Though his ears were full of lather, he could hear the meat frying in the pan, and the spluttering of the fat.
"What punishment do they give to people who harbour malefactors?" Gentle Annie called from over her cooking.
"Who's a malefactor?" called Tresco from the middle of a towel with which he was drying his roseate face.
"What are you then?"
"I'm a gentleman at large, my dear. No one has charged me with anything yet, let alone convicted me."
"But there's a warrant out against you, old gentleman."
"Maybe. I haven't seen it."
"But what's my position?"
"You're accessory after the fact, if there is a fact."
"What am I liable for?"
"That depends on the judge, my dear. It might be two, three, or more kisses. If I was on the bench, the sentence would be as heavy as possible, and I'd insist on executing it myself."
A laugh came from over the frying-pan.
"If you're not careful, old party, you'll have some of this hot fat on your head."
Benjamin had finished his toilette, and walked into the other room.
The small, square table was spread with a white cloth, and a place was set for one.
"But, my dear, won't you partake?" said Benjamin, eyeing the arrangement of the table.
"I'm not hungry," the girl replied. "I'll watch the lion feed."
The little room was filled with the smell of cooked viands, and Tresco seated himself in readiness to eat.
The smoking steak, garnished with fried onions and potatoes, was placed before him.
"For what I am about to receive, my dear, I thank you." Gently squeezing the ex-bar-maid's hand, he kissed it.
"Now, that'll do. You're getting giddy in your old age—it must be the effect of the steak. Cupboard love, cupboard love!"
Tresco drew the cork of the big bottle, which he handed to Gentle Annie.
"What's this for?" she asked.
"You pour it out, my dear. It'll make it taste so much sweeter."
"You gay old deceiver: you're like the rest of them."
"No, my dear: they're imitation; I'm the genuine article."
Gentle Annie filled his tall glass deftly, so that the froth stood in a dome over the liquor. She was about to replace the bottle on the table, when Tresco took a tumbler from the dresser, and filled it for her.
"Keep me company," he said. "It looks more comfortable."
"But stout's so fattening."
"My dear, a lean woman is a reproach to her sex."
"Then, what's a fat one?"
"A credit, like I am to mine, or used to be before I got thin through semi-starvation. Here's to your very good health; may your beauty never grow less." Benjamin raised his glass to his lips.
"More flattery." Gentle Annie's comfortable laugh shook her whole body. "I'm sorry I can't return the compliment."
"You do better: you supply the inner man—steak, done to a turn; stout; sweet stuffs. You couldn't have treated me better, if I'd been a bishop."
"Why a bishop?"
"I've looked round, and taken stock of my fellows; and I think a bishop has a rousing good time, don't you?"
"I can't say; I don't often entertain bishops."
"Bishops and licensed victuallers; I think they get the cream of life."
"But what about lords and dukes?"
"They have to pay through the nose for all they get, but bishops and landlords get all their good things chucked in gratuitous. Of course a bishop's more toney, but a publican sees more of life—honours, meaning good tucker and liquor, divided."
Tresco attacked the juicy steak: his satisfaction finding expression in murmurs of approval. He finished the stout with as much relish as if it had been the richest wine; and then Gentle Annie took from the cupboard two glass dishes, the one half-filled with luscious red plums swimming in their own juice, the other containing junket.
Tresco had almost forgotten the taste of such food. While he was eating it Gentle Annie made some tea.
"Is this the way you treat the toffs, when they come to see you?"
"Toffs? You're the greatest toff that has come to see me, so far."
"I shall come again."
"Do you know there's a reward offered for you?"
"Is that all? I'll give it you, my dear."
From his dirty rags he pulled out a small linen bag, from which he emptied upon a clean plate a little pile of nuggets.
Gentle Annie was lost in wonderment. Her eyes glistened, and she turned the pieces of gold over with her finger covetously.
"These should go close on L4 to the ounce," remarked the goldsmith, as he separated with the blade of a table-knife a portion of the gold equal to what he guessed to be five ounces, and the remainder he replaced in the bag.
"That's for you," he said, pushing the plate towards her.
Gentle Annie gleefully took the gold in her hands.
"You generous old party!" she exclaimed. "I know when I am well off."
They now drank tea out of dainty cups, and Benjamin took a pipe and tobacco from his pocket.
"I really must have a smoke to settle my dinner," he said.
"Of course," said she; "it was only my fun. I smoke myself." Taking a packet from the mantelpiece, she lighted a cigarette, which she handed to Tresco, when a low knock was heard at the door.
In a moment she had blown out the light, and led the erring goldsmith to her inner room, where he stood, apprehensive but alert. From his belt he drew a knife, and then he furtively examined the fastenings of the muslin-draped window.
He heard his hostess open the door and speak to her visitor, who replied in a deep voice, at some length. But, presently, the door closed, the steps of the visitor were heard departing, and Gentle Annie softly entered the room.
"You're quite safe," she said.
"Who was it?"
"Only a friend of mine. He's gone. He won't call again to-night."
Amiria Plays Her Highest Card in the Game of Love.
Scarlett was bound for the gold-fields. He bestrode a tall chestnut mare, with white "socks." In the cool of the morning, with the dew sparkling on the hedges and the birds twittering in the orchards, he rode out of Timber Town.
He crossed the ford where he had rescued Rachel from the clutches of the digger, and had turned into the gorge which led through the foot-hills when he came suddenly upon Amiria, waiting for him, with her horse standing across the road.
She was dressed in a perfectly-fitting habit of dark blue cloth, a hard felt hat, and in her hand she carried a dainty whip; but her feet were bare, and one pretty toe protruded from the stirrup.
"I'm hanged!" exclaimed Jack. "Who ever expected to see you here, at this time of the morning?"
The Maori girl laughed. "I knew you were going to-day—Rose Summerhayes told me. So I said to myself, 'I'll go to the diggings too; I'll see how they get this gold.' Perhaps I may find some myself. Is it far?"
"About fifty miles. But I can't take you to the field."
"Why not? I shan't steal anything."
Scarlett could not forbear a smile. "I don't mean that," he said. "I was thinking what the fellows would say."
Amiria's merry laugh rang through the narrow valley. "Oh, you Pakeha people, how funny you are—always troubled by what others may think about you, always bothering about the day after to-morrow. Yet I think it's all put on: you do just the same things as the Maori. I give it up. I can't guess it. Come on; see if your horse can trot mine."
She flicked her big bay that she was riding, and started off at a swinging pace. And so, Scarlett riding on the soft turf on one side of the road and Amiria on the other, they raced till they came to the next ford.
"I beat!" cried the Maori girl, her brown cheeks glowing with excitement.
The horses were given a mouthful of water, and then they splashed through the shallows; their iron shoes clanking on the boulders as dry land was reached.
"You are very rich, aren't you?" Amiria asked, as they walked their horses side by side.
"What do you mean by rich?"
"Oh, you have lots of gold, money, everything you want."
"Not by any means."
"You must be very greedy, then. They tell me you have thousands of pounds in the bank, a big house which you are building, and a fine girl."
"Yes, Rahera Varnhagen. Isn't she a fine girl?"
"Yes. I was in the old man's store yesterday, buying things for the pa, and he told me he had given his girl to you."
Jack opened his eyes in astonishment. He wondered who was the liar, the Jew or the Maori girl, but all he said was, "Well, I'm hanged!"
Amiria laughed. "You see, these things can't be kept dark."
"But it's all a yarn. I'm not engaged to anybody. Can't a man talk to a girl, without all Timber Town saying he is going to marry her?"
"I don't know. Don't you like her?"
"I think she's very pretty, but that doesn't necessarily mean I want to marry her."
"Then you don't like her?"
"I like her only as a friend."
"Shall I tell her that?"
Jack thought for a moment. He had suddenly become rather suspicious of women-folk.
"It might hurt her feelings," he said.
"If you don't speak the truth, she will think you mean to marry her."
"Then, tell her I don't mean to do anything of the sort."
Amiria laughed softly to herself. "That leaves two," she said.
"Leaves two? What do you mean?"
"There are three girls in love with you. Rahera was one—she is out of it. That leaves two."
"This is the very dickens! Who are the other two, pray?"
"Rose Summerhayes is one."
Jack laughed. "She is too discreet, too English, to give her love, except where she is certain it will be returned."
"You can't tell: you don't know." Amiria had reined in her horse beside Jack's. "She is always talking about you. She talks about you in her sleep—I know: I have heard her."
"No, no; you make a mistake. She's a great friend of mine, but that is all. Who's the other daring girl?"
"You know," replied Amiria, with a pout.
"How am I to presume to think of such a thing?"
"You know quite well."
"Upon my honour, I don't."
"Does a girl ride with you, if she doesn't like you?"
"Depends upon the girl."
"Would I trouble to meet you, if I didn't?"
"Then it's you? Upon my word! This is overwhelming."
"But I have a right to tell you—I saved your life. I know you as other girls don't."
"Oh, I say, this is a bit rough on a fellow. I couldn't help getting shipwrecked, you know."
"But I saved you. I have the right to you first. If you don't like me, then you can marry some other girl."
"I don't think you understand, Amiria. Of course I'm awfully indebted to you. As you say, I owe you my life. But if I marry you, I can't marry anybody else afterwards."
The Maori girl had jumped from her horse, and Scarlett was standing beside her. The horses grazed on the grassy bank of the stream.
"I know all the ways of your people," said Amiria: "I was sent to school to learn them. Some I think good; some I think bad. Your marriage is like the yoke you put on bullocks. It locks you tight together. Before you know really whether you like each other you have this yoke put on you: you are tied up for ever. The Maori way is better. We have our marriage too—it is like the bridle on my horse, light, easy, but good. We only put it on when we know that we like each other. That's the way I wish to be married, and afterwards I would get your priest to give us his marriage, so that I might be tika in the eyes of the Pakeha people."
As she spoke, her eyes flashed and her whole attitude was masterful, if not defiant; her cheek coloured, her mouth quivered with excitement, her gestures, as well as her speech, were full of animation. Evidently, she was giving expression to the warmest feelings of her passionate nature.
Scarlett held a small manuka stick, plucked from a flowering bush by the wayside. With this he struck his leather legging repeatedly, as he walked to and fro in agitation. Pausing by the river's brim, he gazed into the rippling water.
"This is something like marriage by capture," he said, "but the tables are turned on the man. The thing may be all right for you, but I should lose caste. With all your tuition, Amiria, you don't understand Pakeha ways. I could marry you, English fashion; but I haven't the least intention of doing so."
The Maori girl had followed him, and as he gave his decision her arm was linked through his.
The tethered horses were cropping the grass, regardless of their riders. Scarlett, wrestling with the problem that confronted him, was still gazing at the water.
But a sob recalled him to his duty. His companion's whole frame was quivering with emotion, and, as he turned, his eyes were met by hers steadfastly regarding him through their tears.
"You had better go home," he said. "The best place for you is the pa. The best way for you to show your regard for me is to turn back."
She had shot her one bolt, and it had missed its mark. She turned her head aside, and hid her face in her hands. Slowly and disconsolately, she walked towards her horse, and unloosing him from the bush to which he was tied, she climbed into the saddle.
Her whip had dropped on the grass. Picking it up, Scarlett took it to her. She looked the picture of misery, and his heart began to melt. Her right hand hung limply at her side, and as he was putting the whip into it, he pressed her fingers gently. She did not draw her hand away, but left it in his clasp: gradually her tears dried, and a smile came into her face.
"Hullo!" said a strange voice behind them. "Spoonin'? Don't mind me, mate: I've bin there myself."
They turned their heads, to see four grinning men behind them on the track.
"Hold on, Carny; step behind the bushes, an' give the couple a chanst. Boys will be boys. Can't you see the young feller was about to enjoy a kiss?"
"Take her orf the horse, mate," said another of the men. "Go for a walk with her—we'll mind the horses. We won't take no notice."
Flushing with anger, Amiria drew herself up.
"You'd better go," said Scarlett. "I'll attend to these men."
Without another word the Maori girl turned her horse's head for home, walked him quietly past Dolphin and his gang, without taking the least notice of any of them, and then cantered away.
As she did so the four men burst into hoarse laughter and obscene remarks.
Scarlett walked menacingly towards Garstang, who had been the chief offender.
"You filthy brute," he said, "what do you mean?"
"Filthy, eh?" retorted Garstang. "D'you 'ear that, Dolly? An' I suppose my mates is filthy too, eh, mister?"
"Jab 'im in the mouth, Garstang." This advice from Sweet William.
But Dolphin settled the matter. With a revolver in his hand he stepped towards the menacing Scarlett.
"Now, hook it," he said. "If you can't take a bit of chaff without turning nasty, don't think you can get up to any of your funny business here. I give you three minutes in which to clear."
As Scarlett, following the general practice of the diggers, went unarmed, he could only reply by acting upon dictation; but before he turned to go, he looked well at the men before him. Then he mounted his horse, and rode away.
He quickly forded the stream, and, without turning his head to look again at the strange gang, he plunged into the dense forest which stretched across mountain and valley. As he climbed the slopes of the range over which the track led him, the sun shone brightly and not a cloud was in the sky. The air was so still that even at the summit of the range, 2000 feet and more above the sea, not the slightest breeze stirred. The atmosphere was oppressive, and, three parts of the way down the further slope, where a clear rivulet crossed the path, Jack was fain to rest beneath the shade of a giant tree-fern, and eat and drink. There was not a creature to harm him; no venomous reptile, no ravenous beast dwelt in those vast sub-tropical forests; no poisonous miasma reeked from the moist valleys below; in the evergreen trees countless pigeons cooed, kaka parrots and green paroquets screamed, and black parson-birds sang. It was a picture of Nature in one of her most peaceful and happy moods. Forgetful of the distractions which he had left behind him, Jack's mind had turned to the contemplation of the bright prospects which lay before him, when his reverie was broken by the sound of voices and the noise of horses' hoofs; and round a bend of the track, slowly ascending the uncertain gradient, appeared the gold-escort.
Leading the cavalcade, rode a mounted constable dressed in a blue tunic, with silver buttons, dun-coloured, corded riding-breeches, top-boots, and a blue shako. His carbine was slung negligently, and he whistled as he rode.
Behind him came Isaac Zahn, sitting loosely on his horse; a revolver strapped in its case at his belt. He was followed by an unarmed mounted man who led the pack-horse which carried the gold; and an armed digger, who rode a white horse, brought up the rear.
The leading horse whinnied, and Jack's mare answered.
"Good morning," said the constable, reining up. "A beautiful day, sorr. Have ye such a thing as a match wid you?"
Jack, who was smoking, handed a box of matches to the man, who lighted his pipe. The whole cavalcade had come to a halt, and Zahn, who pretended not to recognise Jack, sat on his horse, and scowled.
Scarlett's eyes involuntarily fixed themselves on the heavily-laden pack-horse.
"I should advise you to keep your weather eye lifted, constable," he said.
"Bedad, an' we'll attend to that," replied the Irishman, with a broad smile. "The escort's as good as in Timber Town already. Thank you, sorr." He handed back the matches. "Good morning t'you." And lightly touching his horse with the spur, he passed on.
Disregarding Scarlett's nod of recognition, Zahn followed the leader, without so much as a glance at the man whom he hated as his supposed supplanter in the affections of the beautiful Jewess.
The pack-horse and its leader, a stoutly-built man, went heavily by, and the rear-guard let his horse drink at the stream, but he was a man filled with the importance of his office, and to Jack's greeting he replied merely with a mechanical nod, as though he would say, "Don't speak to me: I'm exceedingly intent upon conveying this gold to Timber Town."
"Strange crowd," mused Jack, as the last hoof disappeared round the upper bend of the track; "riding loose in the saddle, their arms slung behind them. If I'd had a gun, I could have shot the first man before he saw me. Robbing escorts can't be such a difficult matter as is supposed. If Zahn had been civil I'd have used the opportunity to warn him of the queer gang I met at the ford. They may be simple diggers—they look like it—but the man who whips out a pistol on the least provocation is to be guarded against when you're in charge of five or six thousand ounces of gold."
With these thoughts Jack mounted his horse, and rode away. The winding track at length led him into a deep valley, down which flowed a broad river whose glistening waters rippled laughingly over a shallow bed of grey boulders. Along its banks grew mighty pines, the rimu, the totara, and the broad-spreading black-birch, their trunks hidden in dense undergrowth and a tangle of creepers; while here and there beside the sparkling waters grew thick clumps of bright green tree-ferns.
But the track was now flat and straight, and putting his horse into a trot Scarlett covered the ground rapidly. After some ten miles of riding, he came to a ford where the track crossed the river, and entered rougher country. As he drew rein at the verge of the water to let his horse drink, he noticed that the heavens had suddenly become dark. Looking at the strip of sky revealed by the treeless stretch above the waters, he saw a phenomenon in the upper air. Across the tranquil blue expanse advanced a mighty thunder-cloud; its unbroken face approaching at immense speed, though not a leaf of the forest stirred, nor the frond of a fern moved. It was like the oncoming of a mighty army, sweeping across the still country, and leaving devastation in its track. Then the low rumble of the thunder, like the sound of cannon in the distant hills, heralded the commencement of the storm. A flash broke from the inky black cloud, and simultaneously a deafening thunder-clap burst upon the solitary traveller. Then followed an ominous silence, broken by the rushing of the wind among the tree-tops, and the high heads of the forest giants bent before the storm. The rain came down in a deluge, and shut from sight both hill and valley; so that instead of wandering through a leafy paradise, where birds sang and the sunshine glittered on a million leaves, Scarlett groped his way as in a maze, dark and impenetrable; his horse dejected, himself drenched and cold.
In Tresco's Cave.
Tresco stood in his dark, dank cavern, and meditated upon the loneliness of life.
He was naturally a sociable man, and loved the company of his fellows, but here he was living a hermit's existence, shut up in the bowels of the earth, with no better associates than the clammy stalactites which constantly dripped water upon the white, calcareous floors.
The atmosphere was so cold that it chilled the marrow of the goldsmith's bones, and to render habitable the inner recess where he lived he was forced to keep a fire perpetually burning. To do this it was necessary for him to sally into the daylight, in order that he might collect firewood, of which there was in the neighbourhood of the cave an abundant supply.
Groping his way slowly through the winding passage, every twist and turn of which he knew in the dark, Benjamin passed into the lofty cavern which he had named the Cathedral, where the stalactites and stalagmites, meeting, had formed huge columns, which seemed to support the great domed roof overhead. This was a place which Tresco was never tired of admiring. "A temple built without hands," he said, as he held aloft his candle, and viewed the snow-white pillars which stood on either side of what he named the Nave.
"What a place to preach in." He who has no companions must needs talk to himself if he would hear the human voice. "Here, now, a man could expatiate on the work of the Creator, but his sermon would have to be within the fifteen minutes' limit, or his congregation would catch their death of cold. 'Dearly beloved brethren, the words of my text are illustrated by the house in which we are assembled.'" His voice filled the Nave, and reverberated down the aisles. "'Here you have the real thing, built by the Master Builder, Nature, for the use of the Cave Man, and preserved for all time. How wonderful are the works of Creation, how exquisite the details. You have heard of the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian columns, and of the beauties of Greek architecture, but compare these white, symmetrical piers, raised in one solid piece, without join or crevice. Observe yonder alabaster gallery where the organ swells its harmonious tones; observe the vestry, where the preacher dons his sacerdotal garb—they are perfect. But did I hear a lady sneeze? Alas! Nature forgot the hot-air pipes; the Cathedral, I admit, strikes a little chilly. Therefore I dismiss you, my brethren, lest you should catch pleurisy, or go into galloping consumption.'"
He finished with a laugh, and then passed into the small entrance-cave, which he denominated facetiously the Church Porch. Here he blew out his candle, which he placed on a rock, and emerged from his hiding-place.
He had burst from the restful, if cold, comfort of his cave upon the warring elements. Peal after peal of thunder rolled along the wooded slopes of the rugged range; fierce flashes of lightning pierced the gloom of the dark valley below, and from the black thunder-cloud overhead there poured a torrent of rain which made the goldsmith think of the Deluge.
"Ha!" he exclaimed, as he stood in the entrance of his damp den, "there are worse places than my cave after all. But what I want is firewood. Lord! that flash almost blinded me. Rumble—grumble—tumble—crash—bang! Go it; never mind me. You aren't frightening me worth tuppence. I rather like a little electricity and aqua pura." In answer there was a dazzling flash, followed by a terrific clap of thunder which seemed to burst almost above Benjamin's head. "All right, if you insist—I'll go. Sorry I obtruded ... Good afternoon."
He retreated into the cave, took up his candle, which he relighted, saying to himself, "I'll go and explore that passage behind the Organ Loft, and see if it leads to the outer world. In case I get shut in here, like a rat in a hole, it's just as well for me to know my burrow thoroughly."
Groping his way up a slippery ascent where his feet continually stumbled over the uneven surface of the encrusted floor, he climbed to the Organ Loft, where, screened behind a delicate, white tracery which hung from roof to floor of the gallery and assumed the shape of an organ, pipes and panels complete, he could see his candle's flame shoot long fingers of light into the vast Nave below.
However, he spent but little time in contemplation of the weird scene, but turning sharply to the right he followed a narrow, winding passage which led into the heart of the limestone mountain. His progress was both slow and difficult, for the encrusting carbonate had, in many places, all but filled up the passage, and, in many others, the floor was so broken as to make it almost impossible for him to press onwards. Now he would squeeze himself between the converging sides of the passage, now he would crawl on hands and knees through a hole which would barely receive his shoulders; and thus, sweating, panting, bruised, and even bleeding where his hands and arms had been grazed by rasping and projecting rocks, he at length sat down to rest in a place where the tunnel broadened into a small chamber. How far he had pushed his way into the bowels of the earth he could not tell, neither was he thoughtful of the distance. What he was looking and hoping for, was a gleam of light ahead, but whenever he blew out his candle the inky blackness was so intense as to be painful to his eyes.
"My God! Supposing a man got in here, and couldn't get back? Suppose I got stuck between two rocks?—I'd have to stop here till I grew thin enough to squeeze out."
Quickly he re-lit his candle.
"That's better," he exclaimed. "There is after all some company in a lighted candle. We'll now go on; we'll press forward; we'll see whither this intricate path leadeth. 'Vorwarts' is the word: no turning back till the goal is reached."
He crept through a low aperture, and with difficulty he rose to his feet; a few steps further on he stumbled; the candle fell from his hand, and dropped, and dropped, and dropped, in fact he never heard it reach the bottom.
Feeling in his pocket for his matches as he lay prone, he struck a light, and held the burning taper beyond him as far as he could reach. All that he saw was a dark and horrible abyss. He struck another match with the same result. He seized a piece of loose rock, rolled it over the edge, and waited for the sound of its lodgment at the bottom. He heard it bumping as it fell, but its falling seemed interminable, till at length the sound of its passage to the nether regions died away in sheer depth.
Tresco drew a long breath.
"Never," he said, "never, in the course of his two score years and ten has Benjamin been so near Hades. The best thing he can do is to 'git,' deliberately and with circumspection. And the candle has gone: happy candle to preserve the life of such a man as B.T."
Slowly and with the utmost caution he crept backwards from the horrible pit. But his supply of matches was scanty, and often he bumped his head against the ceiling, and often he tripped and fell, till before long there was not a part of his portly person that was free from pain. Yet still he struggled on, for he realised that his life depended on his extricating himself from the terrible labyrinth in which he was entangled. He struck match after match, till his stock was expended, and then, panting, weary, and sore, he clenched his teeth and battled onward. It seemed miles to the end of the passage. He imagined that he had got into some new tunnel, the opening of which he had passed unwittingly when he crept into the trap; and to the natural dread of his situation was added the horrible fear that he was lost in the bowels of the earth.
And then, when his strength and nerve had all but given out, came deliverance. Before him he saw a faint glimmer of light, which grew brighter and brighter as he pressed painfully forward, and ere he knew that he was safe he found himself in the gallery behind the organ loft.
But what was the brilliant light that filled the nave of the Cathedral? What was the sound he heard? It was the sound of men's voices.
Sitting round a fire, whose red flames illumined the white walls of the grotto, were four men, who talked loudly as they dried their wet garments before the blaze.
Tresco crept to the trellis-work of the gallery, and peered down upon the scene. In the shifting light which the unsteady flames threw across the great cave below he could hardly distinguish one man from another, except where facing the ruddy light the features of this intruder or of that reflected the fierce glow.
"I had to chiv the fat bloke, an' he squealed like a pig when I jabbed 'im." The speaker was sitting cross-legged with his back towards Tresco, and was wiping the blade of a big butcher's knife.
"My man died coughing," said another. "'E coughed as 'e sat like a trussed fowl, an' when I 'squeezed' 'im, 'e just give one larst little cough an' pegged out quite pleasant, like droppin' orf to sleep."
"It's been a bloody mess," remarked a third speaker. "There's Garstang there, a mass of blood all over his shirt, and there's the two men that was shot; any'ow you like to look at it, it's an unworkmanlike job. All four of 'em should ha' been 'squeezed'—bullets make reports and blood's messy."
"Garn! Whatyer givin' us, Dolly?" said the youngest member of the gang. "Didn't you shoot your own man—an' on the track, too? I don't see what you've got to growl at. We've got the gold—what more do you want?"
"I shot the unfortunate man, your Honour, firstly because he was a constable, and secondly because he was givin' trouble, your Honour. But I prefer to do these things professionally." Dolphin's mock seriousness tickled his hearers, and they laughed. "But, joking apart," he said, "after all the experience we've had, to go and turn that mountain-side into a butcher's shambles is nothin' short of disgraceful. They all ought to've been 'squeezed,' an' have died as quiet as mice, without a drop of blood on 'em."
"All food for worms; all lying in the howling wilderness, where they'll stop till kingdom come. What's the use of worrying? Hand over that bag of gold, Garstang, an' let's have a look. I've got an awful weakness for nuggets."
A blanket was spread on the floor of the cavern, and upon this were heaped bank-notes and sovereigns and silver that glittered in the fire-light.
The four men gathered round, and the leader of the gang divided the money into four lots.
"Here's some of the gold." The shrill-voiced young man handed a small but heavy bag to Dolphin. "There's stacks more."
"One thing at a time, William," said the leader. "First, we'll divide the money, then the gold, which won't be so easy, as we've got no scales. Here, take your cash, and count it. I make it L157 7s. apiece." From a heap of bundles which lay a few yards off he drew forward a tent-fly, and then he carried into the light of the fire a number of small but heavy bags, one by one, and placed them on the canvas.
"My lot's only L147 7s.," said a deep and husky voice.
"You must ha' made a mistake, Garstang," said Dolphin. "Count it again."
While the hulking, wry-faced robber bent to the task, the leader began to empty the contents of the bags upon the tent-fly.
Peering through the tracery of the Organ Gallery, Tresco looked down upon the scene with wonder and something akin to envy. There, on the white piece of folded canvas, he could see dull yellow heaps, which, even in the uncertain light of the fire, he recognised as gold.
At first, half-stunned by the presence of the strangers, he was at a loss to determine their character, but from their conversation and the display of such ill-gotten riches, he quickly grasped the fact that they were greater criminals than himself. He saw their firearms lying about; he heard their disjointed talk, interlarded with hilarious oaths; he saw them stooping over the heaps of gold, and to his astonished senses it was plain that a robbery on a gigantic scale had been committed.
On one side of the fire the wet and steaming garments of the murderers were hung on convenient stalagmites to dry; upon the other side of the red blaze the four men, dressed in strange motley, gleaned from their "swags," wrangled over the division of the plunder.
"There's only a hundred-an'-forty-seven quid in my lot, I tell yer!" Garstang's rasping voice could be plainly heard above the others. "Count it yerself."
"Count it, Dolly, an' shut his crooked mouth."
"I'll take his word for it," said the leader. "We can make it good to you, Garstang, when we get to town and sell some gold. Now listen, all of you. I'm going to divide the biggest haul we've ever made, or are likely to make."
"Listen, blokes," interrupted Sweet William, with an oath. "Give the boss your attention, if you please."
Tresco glued his eye tighter to the aperture through which he peered. There lay the dull, yellow gold—if only he could but scare the robbers away, the prize would be his own. He rose on one knee to get a better view, but as he did so his toe dislodged a loose piece of stone, which tumbled noisily down the gallery steps, the sound of its falling re-echoing through the spacious cavern.
In a moment the robbers were thrown into a state of perturbation. Seizing their arms, they glanced wildly around, and stood on their defence.