Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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To-night they were too tired to cook. Denis made tea, and each took a pannikin to his couch, and spread himself prostrate in the dusk.

"In another hour or two," said Denis, "we'll go out one at a time, and have the best supper that money can buy on Ballarat. We can afford that; but we can't afford to go on using ourselves up at this rate."

A slumbrous sigh was the only answer from the other bunk; but Denis was too much exercised in his mind to close an eye. Should they seek a mate? or should they restrict their hours? Could they get a respectable hireling to look after them if they tried? The last plan was the most desirable for obvious reasons; and Denis desired it on other grounds as well. He was naturally anxious, for his own sake and for one other's, to make as much money as possible in as little time; and he had tasted blood, at last, in an intoxicating draught. He had begun making up for lost time; that was what he must go on doing. It was not so with Doherty, however, and this time Denis had quite decided to respect the prejudices of the lad who had stood by him so loyally through so many luckless weeks. After all, in the beginning they had actually started for the diggings, they two, to sink or to swim together. The importation of Moseley had been as unfair as it had proved unwise; the ignorant lad had found himself at a continual disadvantage between the two educated men; they could talk in parables beyond his comprehension, and Moseley invariably did. Doherty had been bitterly jealous of him, yet had striven finely to suppress his chagrin, and never stooped to backbiting or tale-bearing under its stress. And his devotion to Denis had never wavered; that was at once a touching consideration and a clear claim. No; there should be no more partners if Denis could help it, but if he could not, then the newcomer should be a man after Jimmy's heart rather than his own.

It was moonlight when Denis came to this conclusion of the matter, though he had lain down in daylight not long before. He did not lie many minutes more. A shambling step came to his ears, came nearer and nearer; he jumped up in time to meet a tottering figure at the door.

CHAPTER XIX
NEW BLOOD

"Jewson!" exclaimed Denis in cold astonishment. "What in the world do you want – with me?"

"You may well ask, sir," replied the steward, in an abject whine, "but on all the diggings there was no one else that I could turn to – little as I deserve at your hands, sir – little as I know I deserve! But you look at me, Mr. Dent, and you'll see the way I've been used!"

He turned his face into the level moonbeams; an eye was closed and discoloured; a lip was swollen and cut, and the coat was almost torn off the steward's back, hanging in ribbons from the shoulders only.

"Some one's been knocking you about," remarked Denis, dispassionately.

"Some one has," the steward agreed, grimly: "some one as ought to have known better – some one not half as old as me, and more than twice as strong! But it was my fault.

I might have known! I seen it coming from the first; it was bound to come when the luck gave out. You'll have heard about the water on the Gravel Pits, likely? It's flooded us out altogether; and this is the way the Captain's used me, with his own hands, after two months' faithful service!"

"You've probably been getting drunk," said Denis; but there was no sign of drink about the man; and Denis accepted his denial with some regret for the suggestion, for he was already more sympathetic than he seemed, because readier than he knew to believe ill of Devenish.

The steward's story was that for some trifling omission he had been visited with a torrent of intolerable abuse, and on remonstrance, with the personal chastisement of which he bore marks which never struck Denis as other than genuine. The wretch was clever enough to make excuses for his late master, whose behaviour he attributed entirely to irritation caused by the ruin of his claim; but as Jewson said, that was not his fault, and he could not stay another hour with a gentleman who used him so. So he had turned to Denis in his distress – little right as he had – and he hoped the past at least would be forgiven and forgotten – if only for the sake of the season.

"Why, what is the season?" asked Denis; for in the incessant excitement of the last few days, and the unaccustomed surroundings of blue sky and blazing heat, he had quite forgotten that Christmas was upon them; but he remembered as he spoke, and could quite believe the steward's statement that it was already Christmas Eve.

"And to think you had forgotten!" added Jewson, who was fast recovering a careful kind of confidence. "Why, I expected to find you starting to keep it in the good old style – roast beef – turkeys – plum-pudding and mince pies! What's the good of being a lucky digger unless you keep a high old Christmas like the rest of 'em?"

"Who told you I was one?" asked Denis, suspiciously.

"Who told me? If you asked me who hadn't told me, Mr. Dent, I might be able to answer you, sir. You don't keep a thing like that to yourself in a place like this. Captain Devenish told me, for one; it was one of the things that helped to make him mad."

"Well," said Denis, "you must come in, steward, but I'm sorry there's nothing to offer you. We were going out to get something before we turn in. There's nothing in the place but the remains of some mutton we had last night and this midday, some stale damper, and some dried-up cheese."

"Call that nothing?" chuckled Jewson. "You might let me see what's left, Mr. Dent; it's wonderful what can be done with what, by a bit of a cook; and I'm all that, sir, though I say it. I might be able to save you turning out again, and I'd be proud to do it after your kindness, Mr. Dent, which I have done so little to deserve!"

Denis was not the man to refuse; he did not like the fellow's whining tone, but it was not his only tone, and he did appear to have been roughly handled. He did not impose upon Denis altogether, but only as much as was necessary, which was characteristic of his craft. He was admitted, a lamp lit without disturbing Doherty, and the remnants of the mutton fetched from an outside safe. Jewson sniffed it suspiciously.

"Sweet enough!" said he. "I see you knew enough to salt it. And are them taters I see in that sack? Then down you lie like your mate, and shut your eyes, and see what the king'll send you! Stop a bit, though; didn't you say there was bread and cheese?"

"Yes, but they're both as hard as nails."

"Never mind; they may make into something soft. Any mustard?"

"Yes; they left us some."

"No beer, I suppose?"

"No."

"Well, never mind. You leave the rest to me. Thank you, I see where everything else is, and in twenty minutes to half-an-hour there'll be something for you to see and taste too!"

Already he was crouching over the fire, blowing upon the red embers, coaxing them into flames; and in the growing glow his cunning face looked kindly enough, and his grin but that of an artist bent on triumphing over materials which only put him on his artistic mettle. Denis watched him a little from the door. Then he sauntered to and fro between hut and shaft; and presently there came to his nostrils the most savoury and appetizing smell that they had yet encountered on the diggings. Something was hissing on the fire; at the table Jewson was preparing something else. On his bed Doherty still slept the sleep of exhaustion; and down upon the bark roof of the hut, on the black hieroglyph of the mounted windlass, and on the white tents further along the gully, shone a moon of surpassing purity and splendour. And Denis thought of a Christmas hymn, and then of Father Christmas himself, as he peered in and watched the elderly evil-doer with the once-dyed beard preparing his miraculous and momentous meal.

Momentous as the sequel will very soon show, at the time it was indeed little less than a miracle, and nothing less to Doherty, who was roused from a castaway's dreams of plenty to find them true. The remains of the mutton had been changed as by some fairy wand into a spiced rago?t swimming in rich gravy. The cook apologized for the potatoes, which he had only had time to fry; but the other diners had forgotten that potatoes could be fried, and their appreciation was proportionate. But the greatest success came in the Welsh rarebit which a master hand had evolved from the stale damper and the dried-up cheese. It lay steaming in its dish like liquid gold – a joy to the eye, a boon to the nose, and to the diggers' hardened palates an inconceivable delicacy and treat.

"And to think," said Denis, "that we had the material by us; that we've had it ready to our hand any time these two months!"

"And much good it was, or would have been," echoed Doherty, "to our hand! It's the hand that matters, not the material. Mr. Steward, give me yours!"

"His name is Jewson," remarked Denis; and his heart sank in spite of him as he saw the young hand join the old across the empty plates.

"But you called me steward, Mr. Dent, and I like to be called steward," rejoined Jewson, adroitly. "It reminds me of times you may think I'd like to forget; but I wouldn't and shall I tell you why? Because I'd like to make up for 'em, sir, if only you'd give me the chance. I'm out of a job. Wild hosses wouldn't take me back to Captain Devenish. I was only his servant, not a partner, and I'll be your servant, Mr. Dent, and a good one, sir, if you'll give me a trial. Pay me what you like – I ain't partic'lar."

And the old rogue lapsed into a living heap of humility; but he had gone just one sentence too far.

"I'll pay you well if I take you," said Denis, shortly, as he sipped his tea. Yet even the tea seemed a better brew than they had managed to achieve for themselves.

"I don't want you to make up your minds to-night," resumed the steward, reducing the humility a degree or so. "I don't care about hotel work. I certainly shouldn't start work at any of these here shanties on Christmas Day. They have approached me, you understand, through Lieutenant Rackham, who has been kind enough to say a good word for my capabilities. But that's not the kind of place I'd like so well as this. Let me camp outside to-night, and cook your Christmas dinner to-morrow, while you think it over."

But Denis said he would prefer to think it over at once, and lit his pipe, and went out to do so then and there, with a troubled face which Jewson could understand and Doherty could not.

"He never liked me," said the steward with a sigh. "And it was my fault," he added self-reproachfully.

"But if you see that you could soon make him like you."

"If he gave me the chance, perhaps."

"He shall!"

Denis was leaning in the moonlight against the windlass staging. There he listened to the lad's strenuous and enthusiastic plea.

"We've never had a mate like that since we've been on Ballarat," urged Jimmy; "and all done in half-an-hour out of our own odds and ends! Why, mister, that steward of yours would make a man of me and a new man of you in less than no time. And he doesn't even ask to be a partner; he's the very man we want, dropped from the stars on to this blessed claim! If we don't snap him up, others soon will, and we deserve to lose the second-best chance we've ever had."

Denis puffed his pipe in silence.

"I know him, you see," he said at last.

"Of course you do."

"But I never liked him."

"So he says."

"And it was his own fault."

"He says that too. He's said enough for me to see he means turning over a new leaf if you give him this chance."

Denis wavered. If he was going to give the man a chance (and he could always watch him, and get rid of him at a moment's notice) it would be perhaps unfair to let the lad know all he thought about their prospective companion.

"Do you really want him to have the job, Jimmy?"

"I do so, mister. He's the very man for us. I want him bad."

"And you never wanted Mr. Moseley at all, eh?"

"No, mister, I never did."

Denis went on smoking for another minute. The moon was high now, and as pure as ever. The tents further down the gully shone white as from a fall of real Christmas snow; and sounds of real Christmas came faintly from them, and more faintly from far beyond. Denis, however, was not thinking of the morrow, but of many a morrow – of long days of unremitting labour – of short nights when the spent body would be fit but for rest and for refreshment. He felt the better already for this single evening meal. And the man could be watched – the man could be watched.

"Well, mister?"

"It's all right, Jimmy. He shall have his trial – to-morrow – the day after to-morrow – and as many days after that again as he suits us and we him. But never let him know the half of what we take, and never you leave him on the claim alone."

CHAPTER XX
THE JEWELER'S SHOP

Dent and Doherty became the heroes of one of those fairy-tales in which the times were rich. For eight consecutive days, after laying the gutter bare from wall to wall of the shaft, and slabbing the latter down to the last inch, they washed their twenty tubs a day, and averaged rather better than four ounces to the tub. The daily yield only once fell below ?300 at current rates; but more than once it impinged upon ?400. Altogether the eight days realized upwards of ?50; which was the aggregate amount handed over to the Commissioner, who forwarded it to Geelong by Gold Escort, which delivered it to a firm of gold-buyers whom the Commissioner could recommend, and who presently remitted some ?2,400 in hard cash.

These wonderful days were also the most comfortable that the partners had yet spent upon the diggings. They were properly looked after for the first time. They had three good meals a day, to say nothing of coffee and a biscuit before they went to work in the early morning and afternoon tea with hot cakes or any other incongruous luxury which happened to occur to the steward's mind. Denis said it was a good thing they were working so hard. Doherty rolled his eyes and put on flesh. The pair were being spoiled and cosseted by a master-hand, and it did them more good than their success. They were the better workers by day, the better sleepers by night, and this despite the manifold excitements of every waking hour.

Jewson was excelling himself; but an outsider would have said it was well worth his while, for Denis had hit upon a scale of pay which made him after all a small partner, whose earnings might amount to several sovereigns a day, and could not fall below five pounds a week. As prices went, the bargain was not extravagant, and Denis was the first to appreciate the blessing of better food; the steward's prowess was no small asset in the suddenly successful concern, and he must be kept in it by hook or crook; on that the partners were agreed. And yet Denis was as far as ever from trusting the man in his heart, though his original prejudice had abated not a little.

Jewson wore a shade over the blackened eye, which had only been exposed by moonlight; but Denis's distrust was not such as to make him want to lift it, because it never occurred to him to discredit the account of his cousin's violence; and therein is seen the working of another prejudice, on which a cunning brain had counted all along. A simple nature, on the other hand, is simple even in its suspicions; and the worst that Denis harboured were engendered by Jewson's strange practice of shopping at night only and usually being hours about it. Denis sometimes had a mind to follow him, but it was not in his nature to play the spy, and so the real spy went free.

The lucky pair took their luck very coolly, one because he did not understand the value of money, the other because he understood it too well to estimate a thousand pounds at a penny more than a tithe of the ten thousand on which he had set his heart. In money matters, however, the point of view is everything, and in none is it more mercurial. A day or two served to inure the partners to the idea of dividing a couple of thousand a week, and Denis began almost to resent the fact that at this rate it would take ten whole weeks for him to reach his minimum; he was also annoyed that in all the gold they had got there was not as yet a single nugget.

"I promised to send the first one home to England," he said openly in the hut. "I would give a hundred pounds to have one worth fifty to send by the mail to-morrow night!"

Jewson was crouching over his camp-oven at the time; his back straightened, and for some moments he sat in an arrested attitude, his head thrown up in undisguised attention; but this was not noticed, and his face could not be seen.

That night the steward was so long upon his rounds that Denis did not sit up for him, but decided on a word of remonstrance in the morning. Yet when morning came, the coffee was so hot and aromatic, the biscuit so crisp, the fresh air so cool and so invigorating, that he found it difficult to complain just then. And in the first hour of the new day that happened which effaced all untoward impressions from his mind.

Denis had been lowered into the shaft to dig. Doherty had raised one bucket of wash-dirt, and was waiting for the next, when a loud shout brought him to the shaft's mouth.

"A nugget, Jimmy! A nugget in the nick of time! I nearly cut it in two with the spade!"

It was a very small nugget, much in the shape and size of a kidney-bean, but of singularly pure and smooth gold, and Denis declared that it was just the thing. With the point of his knife he removed every particle of earth, and then scrubbed it with soap and water until it was as bright as the last sovereign from the mint. It seemed to give him greater pleasure than all the gold-dust despatched to Geelong; and no more work was done before breakfast, which was taken with the nugget on the table in front of Denis, save when he pressed a piece of twine into the cleft made by the spade and tried how it looked round Doherty's neck.

"Half should be yours, by rights," he said; "but you won't mind if I credit you with the weight instead? Don't be a fool! Of course I'll do that! But it was almost my last promise – to send her my first nugget – and it's been such a long time coming."

"Funny it's coming just when you wanted it for the mail," remarked Doherty in perfect innocence; but the steward spoke up from his self-appointed place beside the fire.

"I only wonder it's the first," said he; "but you take my word it ain't the last. Talk about jewelers' shops! You've opened one of the best on Ballarat. Look at the men you're bringing back to the gully; there'd be a rush if it wasn't for the depth they've got to sink, and that you had all done for you. I sha'n't be satisfied till I see you put your pick into a bit like they took out of Canadian Gully twelve months ago."

Nothing could have been more consistent and withal less officious than the discreetly sympathetic encouragement of the steward; he also knew something about gold-mining, and his unobtrusive suggestions were often of value. Denis was indeed more and more unable to reconcile the useful landsman with the ship's steward who had broached the ship's spirits and misbehaved himself in other ways; but after all, a man might pull himself together, and having suffered from a bad master, might well desire to make the most of a good one. So Denis was imposed upon while still as much on guard against imposition as these engrossing days allowed.

And the eight days of harvest were almost at an end; that very morning there was a subtle change in the appearance of a bucketful that Doherty sent up, and Denis forthwith washed an almost wholly unprofitable tub. He then went down the shaft, and found as he expected that they had struck the bottom of the gutter, and were on the hard paleozoic floor. The difference was even more marked than that between the red clay and the auriferous drift, here only four or five feet thick. There were still some tubs to take before the corners of the shaft were cleared to the bed-rock.

"And then?" asked Doherty with a blank face.

"Then the fun begins."

"Tunneling?"

"Of course."

"But how do you know which way?"

"Down the gully; nothing simpler. But first of all we can try all round with trowels, in holes just big enough to take your arm, like tasting cheese; then where it's richest we shall tunnel for another three months, and if this is the gutter and not a pocket we shall be well enough off by that time to take a spell and talk things over."

They were for once down the shaft together, and as they stood discussing the situation the steward's small head appeared like that of a pin against the little square of sky high above.

"There's a Chinaman selling beer," he shouted down. "Would you like some?"

"Very much," answered Denis. "Draught or bottle, steward?"

"Draught."

"Then take three pints, and cool it in the gallon jar. It's an occasion," continued Denis down below. "The first of the nuggets before breakfast and the last of the gutter before noon; only, it's not the last; and even if it were, that little nugget would be some consolation to me."



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