Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel

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Nigger Rackham had the freedom of the tent on the Gravel Pits, where he would appear sometimes at dead of night, brandishing a bottle and demanding the Welsh rarebit or the savoury omelette at which Jewson had shown himself an adept. Many an impromptu carouse was thus initiated, and it was after one of them that Rackham distinguished himself by whistling for a hansom outside the tent. He was a man of violent appetites, whose every vein was swollen with sufficiently savage blood. But he had a crude vitality and a brutal gaiety very bracing on occasion, as when he told of Denis's fortunes in one breath, but undertook his ruin in the next. This was a night or two after their collision at the new claim; the bottle was getting low, and the lieutenant's eyes were like living coals.

"I'll take it out of him! I'll have him at the Logs yet, never fear," said he. "There are only two of them; some fine morning there'll be only one, and no license to show. Then away he goes, and if you like you shall jump the claim. But it won't be for another month."

"Another month!" echoed Devenish with a blank face.

"The brutes have taken out their new license a good two days before they need," explained the lieutenant. "That I happen to know, but they don't know I know it. They've had a fight, and we are ready for another raid; if we let them be they won't take such care when this next month's up. But we must wait till it is up, and we must chance your poor relation growing rich in the time."

Ralph Devenish sat up smoking for an hour when the bottle was empty and his companion gone. He was much the more temperate man of the two, but patience was not one of his virtues, though it had become a necessity of his protracted suit. That only left him with less than ever for the ordinary incidents of life, and his experience as a digger had not made Devenish more patient. He had been as lucky at the start as Dent had been unlucky. In these few weeks he had actually netted some three hundred pounds sterling, out of a chain of shallow workings whereby he and others had been tracing the Gravel Pits Lead down its course: only within the last day or two had the lead run into a drift of water which had flooded all the holes and completely damped Ralph's ardour. It was pronounced impossible to sink through this drift without the tiresome operation known as "puddling"; and that proved far too heroic a measure for Ralph Devenish, who was only happy when washing his two or three ounces a day. So one morning he was counting on making his three hundred up to five at least, and by the following night he had found out when the next ship sailed from Melbourne. It was at this juncture that Rackham brought word of a contrary turn in the affairs of Denis. The untimely news checked all Ralph's plans. He was not at all inclined to leave his rival with the ball at his feet, and nothing to stop him but the capricious persecution of a corrupt constabulary.

Ralph might have blushed to put it so even to himself, but that was his actual attitude as he sat smoking into the small hours, and so Jewson stole in and found him in the end.

Ralph was not startled; the steward was regularly the last abed; but now his boots were yellow with fresh dust, and the perspiration showered from his peaked cap as he took it off.

"Where have you been?" asked Ralph, raising a morose face to stare.

"I thought you might like an extra drop to-night," replied the steward, winking and grinning as he produced a bottle, "so I've been getting you another of these from where the lieutenant gets 'em. You don't do your fair share, Captain Devenish, sir, and you may want to when you've heard my little report."

"Report of what?" asked Devenish. But the steward would only chuckle and shake a wicked skull until the grog was served out and the pair seated, pannikin to pannikin, on either side of the packing-case that did duty for a table.

"I heard what you were talking about, you see," began Jewson, wiping the gray moustache from which the dye had almost disappeared.

"You generally do."

"And you generally know it, so where's the harm? But when I hear you talking about the second mate that was," continued the steward, showing a whole set of ill-fitting false teeth, "I do more than hear – I listen – and listen I will whenever I catch his cursed name!"


"Well, sir, it's right."

"What's right?"

"What the lieutenant was telling you. He's fallen on his feet this time. I've been to see."

"You've been to Mr. Dent's tent already?"

The prefix was a mark which it would have been against Ralph's instincts to overstep with an inferior. It was incongruous enough to curve the corners of the steward's mouth.

"It ain't a tent," said he, chuckling. "It's one of the best huts I've seen on the diggings."

"It is, is it?"

"Once I'd found Rotten Gully, which isn't so very far from this, it was easy enough to find the only claim it could be."

"So it's as good as all that!"

"To look at," said Jewson, "on a moonlight night. But they'd their own light burning inside; you hadn't to get very near to hear their voices. They were sitting up yarning, same as you and the lieutenant. Only on tea," added the steward, in the absence of further encouragement.

"Poor devils!" remarked Devenish, raising his pannikin.

"You can't call 'em poor now, sir," declared the steward. "All's fair in love and war, and I had a look in on 'em like a mouse: they've proper crockery left 'em by the outgoing tenant, and a proper table to set it on."

"Anything else?" inquired Ralph, sarcastically.

Jewson leaned forward and lowered his voice as though they were being spied upon in their turn.

"Half a saucerful of gold-dust out of the hole!"

"Already!" exclaimed Devenish, dropping reserve in his astonishment.

"In the very first day's washing! They never began until to-day. That's what's keeping them up all night," added Jewson. "They've started looking ahead, you see. Let me fill up your pannikin, Captain Devenish. You don't get half a chance with Mr. Rackham, sir!"

Ralph Devenish was one who carried his liquor in a manner worthy of his blood. His worst friend had seldom seen him fuddled. He was so much the less proof against the deeper and more damning effects. His tongue did not slur a syllable that followed, but it ran away with him all the faster for that. It muttered degrading confidences; it snarled unscrupulous revenge; it revealed a man so different from the Ralph Devenish known of other men that it was as though the drink had gone to his heart instead of to his head.

"I will marry her! I swear I will! We were all but engaged before, and I'll marry her yet. He never shall. I'll see him in hell first – I'll send him there myself! An infernal snob out of the merchant service, and his infernal father's son all over! What's the matter with you, Jewson? What are you grinning at?"

"Only at the idea of you committing a crime, sir. A captain in the Grenadier Guards! Ho, ho, ho!" And the steward showed his horrible teeth again; but there was no mirth in the little black penetrating eyes that were fast to Ralph's.

"But I would!" he swore. "I mean to marry her, by hook or crook."

"You really do?" said Jewson, turning grave.

"Fair or foul!" cried Ralph, recklessly.

"It's all one in love and war," repeated the steward, with a shrug. "But if you mean what you say I'll tell you what to do."

"You will, will you? Well, let's have it."

"I should do as you were thinking of doing earlier in the evening. I should go home by the first ship, and marry her quick!"

"What! Leave him digging his fortune and writing her all about it every mail?"

Devenish had already vowed that he would never do that. He repeated the vow with an oath.

"But you don't know that she's getting any letters," remarked Jewson, calmly.

Ralph gave him a sharp look. "What do you mean by that?"

"Only that he may not be writing to her; he didn't in the beginning, you see; that letter I posted was his first."

"How do you know?"

"His mate told me so."

"You did post it, Jewson?"

The steward chuckled as he shook his head.

"That's tellings," said he, slyly. "You can think I didn't, or you can think I did. He deserved to have it posted, didn't he? He deserves so well of me and you, don't he? All's fair in them two things, you know; if it's the one thing with you, it's the other with me; it's bloody war between me and the second mate, and will be whether you stay or not!"

Devenish was revolted in spite of his worst self. But he was also relieved, and his conscience deadened as quickly as it had come to life again. If the letter had not been posted, it was through no fault of his, and even now he knew nothing about it. And if Jewson, for his own reasons, chose to stay behind on the diggings, in order to thwart the man who so richly deserved thwarting, neither had he, Ralph, anything on earth to do with that. Yet his nature shrank from such an ally, even as he began to appreciate the creature's value, and he frowned as he filled the Turk's head for the twentieth time that night. His hand was as steady as his speech. It was his better nature that was under eclipse. Meanwhile, the steward took the opportunity of surreptitiously replenishing Ralph's pannikin, and still more surreptitiously emptying his own upon the ground.

"So you propose to hold a watching brief on my behalf?" said Ralph at last, and forced a smile at the idea.

"I propose to keep an eye on him for you, if that's what you mean," replied the steward.

"But Sergeant Rackham's going to do that as it is. He says he'll be level with our friend in a month."

"A month!" echoed Jewson, scornfully. "He'll be a made man in a month, if he goes on as he's begun. He's tumbled on a jeweler's shop, or I'm much mistaken."

"Well, you can't take it from him, can you?"

"Perhaps not."

"You mean you can!" exclaimed Devenish, irritated by the confident subtlety of the man's manner.

"Oh, no, I don't."

Devenish tilted the pannikin and set it down with a clatter.

"Then what do you mean? Out with it, Jewson. I'm sick of beating about the bush!"

"So am I," said the steward, dryly.

"If you can't turn a man out of his hole, and prevent him getting all that's to be got out of it, what on earth can you do that's any good to me?"

"If you went home," said Jewson, slowly, "I could keep him here till it was no use his following you – till you were married!"

"Oh, so you think you could do all that?"

"I know I could, Captain Devenish."

"You know it, do you?"

"Of course, you would make it worth my while."

Ralph laughed harshly as he raised the pannikin once more.

"I was waiting for that, you old villain! I was waiting for that!"

But it did not disgust him. He did not even pretend to be disgusted. There were no scruples left in those reckless, heated eyes.

"You give me your promissory note for a thousand pounds, payable on your wedding day, or on demand thereafter, and you'll be married the month after you get back."

Ralph laughed more harshly than before.

"Go on, Jewson! You aren't drunk, are you? Then how do you think you're going to manage it?"

"Ah, that I sha'n't tell you; but manage it I can and will. You leave it to me. If you sail at the New Year – and there's two or three ships advertised – it'll be your own fault if you aren't married by midsummer. And if that isn't worth a thousand pounds I don't know what is."

"It's worth two!" whispered Devenish, hoarsely; "and you shall have two if – if – "

"If what?"

"If he – if he lives to see the day."

Jewson chuckled aloud.

"Of course he will!" he cried. "Where would be the fun if he didn't? Where would be my fun – that's been due to me ever since he had me disrated?"

"Then it's a bargain."

"What? Are you going to give me your hand on it, Captain Devenish?"

"My hand and word, and if I break the one may the other wither!"

"But you'll put it on paper, sir, won't you?"

"Whenever you like."

"One thousand or two?"

"Two if he lives to see it – nothing if he doesn't."

"A bargain it is."


Jewson had not exaggerated the manifest attraction of the claim in Rotten Gully. The hut was eighteen feet by ten, very solidly built, with a fireplace and a chimney at the inner end. Many neat contrivances in the shape of shelves and racks testified to the leisurely particularity of the late owner. He had settled down as on some desert island where a man might expect to end his days. There were refinements so superfluous in themselves as to suggest that the actual work had proved as alluring as the natural reward. In point of fact the Eureka Lead had been followed through the gully and lost on the flat beyond while this deliberate digger built him his hut and sank the hole which he was fated to abandon within a few feet of the gutter.

But the hole was by far the best and soundest in the gully, which deserved its name insomuch as it provided insecure sinkings as a rule. Some of the abandoned shafts had already fallen in; but this one was beautifully slabbed with timber from top to bottom, now some sixty odd feet, the depth of the lead hereabouts being something under seventy.

One of the first things Denis did when they were left in peaceable possession of the claim was to locate it in his last map; and a mark was duly made in the very middle of one of the red rivers.

"Right over the gutter!" he exclaimed. "The sinker said so; but he wasn't the man to sink anywhere else. Don't you remember him saying we were within a few feet of it? Jimmy, I'm going through some of those feet before I'm an hour older, and we'll try the first tub to-night!"

He went down at once in the bucket, armed with a spade – a complete plant had been thrown in with the claim – and for an hour he dug straight down, making the smallest and deepest hole possible, and finally filling the bucket from the bottom. But it was hard work. The red clay was so veritably rotten that again and again the little hole filled up. Denis's shirt was plastered to his skin when Doherty wound him above ground with the bucket, and the clay in the latter was still as red as ever. Denis took it to the creek, however, and tried it piecemeal in a tin dish, but did not get a grain. He returned to Doherty unruffled and smiling.

"It's no use, Jimmy; we've not got down to it yet, and we sha'n't get down to it like that. We must go on digging the whole shaft. But there's another good hour of daylight, and if you like to go down and do a trick I'll wind up the buckets as you fill them."

As the shaft went down by inches the sides had to be slabbed as heretofore; but the "sets of timber" stacked outside the tent proved to be cut to the size, pointed, and ready for fitting into the grooved uprights, which in their turn were found to have been driven into the four corners of the shaft to a depth of several feet beyond that of the shaft itself. So there was no difficulty there while the cut slabs lasted, and as the pair worked half the night in their excitement, by lantern light, and were at it again by sunrise, they had added some three or four feet to the depth by the following forenoon. Then Denis tried another little hole in the middle, and this time the third spadeful was different from the other two. Some particles of gravel trickled from the end of the spade, and even what was on it was of two colours and two consistencies. The next thrust grated to the ear. Denis roared for the bucket, and a head and shoulders stamped themselves upon the square envelope of sky overhead.

"I've struck it! I've struck it! Down with the bucket and stand by to wind up!"

A wideawake danced against the tiny square of blue; a shrill cheer came tumbling in echoes down the timbered shaft; then a leaping bucket, then a writhing rope; and the head and shoulders hung over the brink once more in motionless silhouette, while Denis filled the bucket with the gravelly substance, separating the inaugural spadeful with his hands. There was a difference even to the touch. The red clay was slightly damp, the gravelly compound perceptibly warmer, and so delightfully gritty that Denis could have sworn the grits were pure gold. But it took him some time to fill the bucket, for the red clay was not too damp to crumble, and it continually poured back into his advance hole, burying him sometimes to the thighs. At last, however, a homogeneous bucketful was got to upper air, and Denis after it in a mud-bath of clay and perspiration, but with his triumph shining through his filth.

It still remained to test the stuff and justify the triumph, but Denis did both without delay at the creek, which was far nearer here than on Black Hill Flat. They had no cradle as yet at the new claim, whose late methodical proprietor had not arrived at the stage of requiring one; but Denis took the tin dish once more, and came back beating it like a tambourine, on knee and head, but carrying the empty bucket at arm's length in the other hand. At least it felt as empty to Denis as it looked to Doherty, until the bucket was tilted, and what had seemed but a sparse deposit of rather yellow and sparkling sand formed a slender segment of palpable gold-dust.

They poured it from the bucket back into the tin dish, and from the tin dish into a smaller tin, and from the smaller tin into the saucer in which Jewson really did get a glimpse of about half of it that night. The trial "tub" had yielded upwards of two ounces, by the gold-scales of a friendly neighbour; before night Denis had spent quite half on a good candle, a pair of scales, and the wherewithal for a digger's supper of new damper, steaming chops, and scalding tea.

Thereafter the pair sat up planning, building, furnishing and inhabiting castles which were no longer altogether in the air; but with Denis, in any case, early hours would have been impossible after such a meal hurled into an empty stomach in the late evening of such a day; and the pernicious combination may be confidently traced in the view which he took of this very aspect of a situation otherwise surpassing all his dreams.

"It's all very well for a day or two," said Denis, "but you and I can never go on doing all the work and the cooking too. We couldn't even if we were born cooks. What we want is some fellow to look after us and the hut. Two all told are not enough."

Doherty was toying with the gold-dust in the saucer, picking it up in pinches, and letting it trickle through his fingers in fairy showers, playing with it, drawing in it, as children play and draw in sand. The game palled even as Denis spoke.

"Two were enough for the swell cove who was here before us, mister."

"I know: he took his time: so many hours a day, or so few, and not a minute more. What's the result? He isn't here to reap his reward, because he was in no hurry, and it didn't much matter after all. But I am here – I am in a hurry – every grain and every minute matters to me!"

"It would mean one grain in three instead of in two."

"Then the three would come quicker than the two do now. Not that we're obliged to take another partner because we want an extra hand; at two ounces to the tub we could afford to make it worth many a man's while to do all we want at so much the week."

Jimmy looked up quickly.

"Then you haven't heard from Mr. Moseley yet?"

"I have, Jimmy. I called at the post-office to-night, and the letter was there. Not he! Not for Joe! He wishes us all possible luck, but he has had enough of the diggings to last him a lifetime; and from what he says he ought to be out at sea by this time, homeward bound. Put the billy on the fire, Jimmy, and we'll drink him a good voyage in half a pannikin of tea before we turn in."

To all this Jewson stood listening, if not at the door, still within easy earshot of the unsuspecting friends; and as he listened an inspiration burst upon his crafty brain. He drew away in the moonlight, nodding and grinning to himself – a grotesque Mephistopheles if you will – yet deeper and darker than friend or foe imagined. His plan was matured on the way back to the Gravel Pits, and Captain Devenish was told just as much as it was good for him to know that night, but as we have seen, not a syllable more, and that modicum with the wary tact and infinite precaution of a Mephistopheles of higher class.

Next day was a great one at the new claim; from early morning to high noon the pair laboured in hourly shifts at lowering the whole shaft to the level of the precious wash-dirt. It was not to be done in the time. But later in the day they went deep at one corner, and at last uncovered an angle of the gutter which they had only probed the day before. They took up several bucketfuls to try in the new cradle before dark. The yields were uneven, but the lowest was an ounce, the highest three ounces ten pennyweight, and the day's aggregate just under one pound, or upward of forty pounds sterling.

Yet they were less excited than they had been the night before. The gold was there; it was only a question of getting it out, a question of time, ways, and means. They had taken turns at the creek as well as in the hole, and the friendly neighbour who had lent his scales had kept an eye on the new cradle in their absence, which was intermittent owing to the necessity of one always remaining on the claim. "You must find another mate," said he to Doherty, who no longer disagreed as he toiled back to the hut. They must find another mate, or they must greatly reduce their hours of labour. A reduction of profits would result in either case.

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