Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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When they regained the upper air there was still half-an-hour before the midday meal, and Denis spent it in finishing a long letter and packing the nugget with it in a small tin box unearthed by Jewson. This he tied up in brown paper, but was unable to seal for want of wax; and the parcel remained by his plate as the naked nugget had done at breakfast.

It was now the middle of January, and the hottest weather that Denis had ever known on land. The well-built hut was cooler than the open air, but to swallow a pannikin of tea was to have a warm bath in one's clothes. The beer was therefore a great and timely treat; each man made short work of his pint, and the little package was duly toasted on the eve of its travels. Denis intended taking it to the post-office himself, while the other two enjoyed the siesta which was a necessity of the digger's existence in the hot season. A pipe on the bed was all he would allow himself that day; the others were already asleep when he lit up and began puffing vigorously to keep his eyes open. The eight long days were beginning to tell on him. This one was also of an unbearable and inhuman heat.

Denis was the first to open his eyes. The pipe had dropped from his teeth. It could not have dangled very long, yet the bowl was the coldest thing Denis had touched that day. Well, it was lucky he had not set fire to himself; and since the others were still stretched in slumber, the steward on his blanket near the door, it could not be very late. Time enough at least to do what he had intended doing without disturbing them – and with a bound Denis was in the middle of the floor.

The packet was not on the table where he had left it. Had he left it there? He tore the blankets off his bed in the wild hope of finding it there. No; he remembered keeping his eye on it as he lay back smoking like a sot. In an instant the things were swept off the table in a vain search for the little brown-paper parcel. All this time Denis was venting his feelings in little involuntary cries, but now he called the other two by their names. They stirred uneasily without waking.

Denis began to guess what had happened. His mouth was dry and his head heavy. The light had altered. Outside the shadows had run like ink, and by the watch it was almost five o'clock. A three hours' sleep instead of one! And his packet gone with the time for posting it!

He searched further before finally rousing his companions; and there were signs that the whole place had been carefully ransacked, but none as yet that anything else had disappeared. Denis was equally thankful that he had got rid of the gold-dust and that cash payment was still to come; after all, the value of the nugget was chiefly sentimental; and there was some compensation in the thought that the thief could not have chosen a worse time for himself or a better one for his victims.

"Robbed!" echoed Doherty, sitting up stupidly at last. His eyes had lost all their brightness, and he was soon nursing his head between his hands.

But Jewson was quicker to grasp what had happened – quicker than Denis himself.

"That yellow devil of a Chinaman!" he exclaimed, and sat smacking his lips with a wry face. "Opium! I thought so! I've known the taste too many years; but I'll know him when I see him again, and I'll string him up to the nearest tree by his own pig-tail. Draught beer, eh? I wonder who else he offered it to? See what comes of striking it rich and letting it get about that you have struck it! No, I know you can't help it, unless you've got a private river to wash your dirt in; but that's what's done it, as sure as I'm standing here."

"But you are not standing there," rejoined Denis, as the servant made for the door. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?"

"To lay my hands on John Chinaman!" answered Jewson with an oath. "To catch him red-handed with your nugget on him, and to ram his own pig-tail down his yellow throat!"

The partners were left looking at each other with rather different expressions.

"He'll do it, too," said Doherty, jerking his head toward the door. "Trust the old steward!"

"I suppose one must trust him," remarked Denis in a dubious tone.

"Trust him? Of course you must! Why not, mister? Hasn't he looked after us well enough so far? Hasn't he made all the difference in the world to us, and haven't you admitted it every day? I don't care what he was at sea; let's take him as we find him ashore, and then we sha'n't get wrong. You don't seriously think the steward's had anything to do with this, do you?"

"Not seriously," replied Denis; nor, on reflection, had he the smallest ground for any such suspicion.

"Because," pursued Doherty, triumphantly, "if he wanted to put up a robbery, it's a funny thing he should wait until there was hardly anything to rob – isn't it?"

"Of course."

"And you've lost nothing except the nugget, have you?"

"And the parcel it was in, and my letter!"

"Perhaps he's a chap like me, wot can't read," the lad suggested by way of consolation. "But are you sure that's all you've missed?"

He was looking very hard at Denis.

"I think so, Jimmy. Why?"

"If you undo another shirt-button I'll tell you."

There was no need for Denis to do that. His fingers were down his neck in an instant. And the lanyard of his beloved's hair, which had encircled it day and night for the last three months, was gone with the little ring that Nan had given him at their farewell on board the Memnon.

His rage and distress knew no bounds; the loss of a far larger nugget had been a bagatelle compared with this. A certain superstition was ingrained in Denis; it was one of the few things he had inherited from both the races whose blood clashed in his veins; and in a moment it was as though his star had fallen from the zenith. Apart from the loss of that which he held dearer than aught but Nan herself – her talisman – there was the utter ill-omen of such a loss. And Denis raved about both, bidding Doherty find another mate as quick as he could, for they were at the end of their tether and would wash no more ounces.

"And if we did," cried the distracted fellow, "if we took out a million between us after this, it would only be to go home and find her dead! You make a note of it, and then clear out of the sinking ship. My luck has ended this day!"

Doherty bore it as long as he could, then jumped up saying he was going for the police. "Not for you," he added, "though you deserve the Logs if ever a man did. I've heard a blackfellow talk like that, but not a white man, and may I never hear the like again! We'll have the traps on the track of that Chinaman, as well as Jewson; and we'll get back what you've lost for its own sake, not for what it can't alter one way or the other."

This bracing remonstrance was not without effect. Denis controlled himself by an effort, dashed away an unmanning tear, and was soon the severest critic of his own despair; but he would not let Doherty summon the police, neither would he go himself.

"It is too intimate – too sacred – her hair!" he whispered in a fresh access of misery. "Fancy furnishing a description of that, and letting them publish it broadcast! No, no; better lose it altogether; and may the thief never dream what it was he took!"

"Then where are you going?" asked Doherty, following Denis as he strode out of the hut.

"Down the shaft, to start the tunneling, and to try just one tub before six, to see if the luck has changed or not."

While he was down, Doherty, waiting at the windlass, received a visit from the friendly neighbour who had kept an eye on their cradle at the creek. He said that one of his mates was minding it still, but as no one had been near it all the afternoon, and nothing seemed doing on the claim, he had just come to see if anything was amiss. The man was a genial, broad-shouldered, black-bearded digger of a rough but excellent type, and on reflection Doherty told him of the drugged beer and the resultant loss of the nugget, but of nothing else. The digger seemed considerably interested, asked several questions, and good-naturedly lent a hand to raise Denis from the depths.

"I've just been hearing of your loss," said he, "and I congratulate you! It's not many lucky diggers whose luck attracts the light-fingered gentry and who only lose a four-ounce nugget after all! So that cook of yours has gone to look for the Chinaman?"

"Yes."

"I hope he'll find him," said the burly digger, and went off with a dry smile and a good-humoured nod.

But it was no Chinaman whom Jewson had gone to seek; it was a gentlemanly digger of peculiarly British appearance, with military whiskers which had never been allowed to meet upon the chin; and he was found waiting at the place where the special coach with the English mail was due to start for Melbourne at six o'clock.

"At last!" said he in an ungracious undertone. "What happened to you, Jewson? I had given you up altogether."

"I thought he'd never wake up," whispered Jewson as they drew aside, "and I dursn't run the risk of his finding me gone, as well as – as well as this, sir!"

"What the devil are you talking about, Jewson? And what's that?"

It was a small brown-paper parcel which the steward had produced.

"Something you're going to be so kind as to post and register in Melbourne, sir. In Melbourne, mind – not in London, Captain Devenish!"

"But it's addressed – why, damme, it's addressed to Miss Merridew!"

"I know that, sir."

"Who addressed it?"

"The clever bloke who thinks he's going to marry her," answered Jewson through his artificial teeth. "Clever he may be," he added, "and successful he is, but he ain't so clever that he's going to succeed in that!"

Devenish took heart from the cunning and confident face raised so slyly to his. Yet his heart of hearts sank within him, for it was still not utterly debased, and his compact with this ruffian was a heaviness to him. "What do you mean by asking me to post his presents to her?" he demanded angrily; but his anger was due less to the request than to the underlying subtlety which he felt he had far better not seek to probe.

"I'm not going to tell you, Captain Devenish. You said you'd leave it to me, sir."

"But it is something from him to her?"

"That I promise you; but it'll tell its own tale, and you'll hear it soon enough, once you get home safe and sound."

The driver had mounted to his place, the five horses had been put to. Devenish hesitated with the little brown paper packet in his hand.

"And she really ought to have it?"

"It's only due to her, poor young lady."

"But to me? Is it due to me, man?"

"It'll do you more good, sir," said Jewson, raising his crafty eyes, "than ever anything did you yet, in that quarter, Captain Devenish."

Ralph put the packet in an inner pocket. "Well, I'll think about it," said he. But he did not take the hand that was held out to him. He went from Ballarat with no more than a nod to the man whom he was leaving there to play a villain's part on his behalf. It was enough for Ralph Devenish that he had soiled his soul.

CHAPTER XXI
THE COURIER OF DEATH

Denis passed many days underground, in the fascinating pursuit of driving a tiny tunnel due south from the bottom of the shaft. That way ran the lead as traced already on its outer skirts, and that way burrowed Denis through its golden core. The miniature corridor which he made was but two feet wide, and not six inches higher than its width. Denis could just turn round in it by a series of systematic contortions.

He would have made the drive roomier but for an early warning as to the treacherous character of the red clay stratum immediately overhead. Thereafter he confined his operations to the lower half of the auriferous drift, which being gravelly, was more or less conglomerate, and formed a continuous arch corresponding with the brickwork in a railway tunnel. The drive was not timbered like the shaft which led to it, but at intervals props were wedged against the walls, with flat wooden caps to support the roof. Yet the task seemed to Denis too precarious to depute, and worming every inch of his way, it took him till February to penetrate fifteen feet.

Doherty was consoled by a position of much responsibility above ground: he had the washing of every bucketful which came out of the drive, and he also was single-handed, but for some help at the water-side from the friendly fellow with the black beard, whose offices he was able to repay in kind. The creek hereabouts was more populous now than the partners had found it. Their success had had the usual effect of attracting numbers to the gulley. Some had taken possession of holes prematurely abandoned the year before, and were working them out in feverish haste; larger parties with plant and capital were rapidly sinking their seventy feet on the very edge of the successful claim. "We'll be down on top of you before you know where you are," said one of the newcomers when they heard the direction in which Denis was driving. Thereupon he redoubled his efforts to such purpose that Doherty could not keep pace with the output, and a stack of untried wash-dirt grew up beside the shaft. In spite of this the average yield in washen gold was many ounces a day. And daily Denis took it, his revolver in his pocket, to the Commissioner for transmission to Geelong, where the accredited gold-buyer had turned out so well that the partners no longer received his payments in cash, but had several thousands standing to their credit in his books.

Jewson was much subdued. There was something uncanny in the way this fortune was growing under his eyes, in spite of him. But he had his own reasons for undiminished confidence in the end which an undying grudge and innate cupidity alike demanded; meanwhile his honest emoluments were not to be despised, and he continued to earn them by the consistent exercise of his one accomplishment. His cooking was as good as ever, his behaviour even better, since the nocturnal excursions were a thing of the past. This circumstance was too much of a coincidence to decrease Denis's suspicions; on the other hand, nothing occurred to increase them, and Denis was not sorry for that. The man was invaluable. So much labour underground must have been deadly in its effects without regular supplies of proper food properly cooked. And there the steward never failed. But Denis had his eye on him, and was wise enough never to betray whatever suspicion he had entertained with regard to Jewson's complicity in the theft of the nugget and the ring.

Jewson naturally thought that matter had blown over; but one morning, as he was happily occupied with the duties which he really relished for their own sake, the door darkened as a pair of broad shoulders jammed between the posts; and the steward found himself confronted by a blue-black beard which contrasted invidiously with the unwilling whiteness of his own.

"Well," said a voice of grim good-humour, "have you found him yet?"

"What are you talking about?" replied the steward, testily. "Who are you – and what do you want?"

"Never you mind who I am," said the big man at the door. "You've seen me afore, and I've seen more of you than you might think. What I want is to know whether you ever found the Chinaman you went lookin' for a month ago; and that's what I be talkin' about. So now you know."

The steward stood at the table with his wicked head on one side, considering rapidly while he affected to ransack his memory.

"You mean the Chinaman who sold the doctored beer?"

"I mean the Chinaman who sold you the beer that got doctored."

"No – I never could lay hold of him," said the steward, ignoring the pointed improvement upon his phrase.

"Well, I have," said the big miner in the doorway.

"You've laid hold of him?" the other queried in nervous incredulity.

The digger nodded a big black head that looked as picturesque as piratical in a knitted cap of bright scarlet.

"I'd been lookin' for him, too, you see. You weren't the only folks who had some beer off that Chinaman the day he come along first; me and my mates had some, and it did us so little harm that we've always wanted some more. So I've been lookin' for him ever since, and yesterday I found him at the other end o' the diggin's, away past Sailor's Gully. And why do you suppose he'd never been near us again?" asked the big black man without shifting a shoulder from either door-post.

"I don't know," said the steward, sulkily. "How should I?"

"How should you? Because you told him never to come no more!"

"He's a liar," hissed Jewson, with a tremulous oath.

"And why should you say he ever came at all?"

"Some other lie, I suppose," said Jewson, with another oath.

"Because you told him to: went to the other end o' the diggin's to find him; bought a bit of opium from him, and told him to bring the beer next day. Oh, yes, they may be all lies," said the big digger, cheerfully, "but then again they may not. It's a rum world, mate, especially on the diggin's. I've known worse things done by coves I wouldn't have thought it of; but by the cut of your jib I should say you was capable of a good lot. Boss down driving, I suppose?"

"Like to go down and tell him now – like me to let you down?" asked Jewson, with a venomous glitter in his little eyes.

The digger laughed heartily in his face.

"No, thank you – not without a third party handy to keep you from meddling with the rope! But I can wait, my friend, and I can come again. My claim's not so far away, and I'll be back at dinner-time if not before. Of course, they may be lies as you say; a Chinaman's a Chinaman, and that's why I come along now to have a quiet word with you first. But by the colour o' your gills, old cock, I don't believe they are lies. So now you know what's before you when your boss comes up. He may believe you and send me to the devil, but he's got to hear my yarn and judge for himself. So there it is. I like to give a man fair warning, and that you've got."

The hut doorway was no longer obstructed. It framed once more a vivid panel of parched earth and blinding sky with a windlass and a stack of wash-dirt in the foreground. But the hut itself held a broken ruffian whose ruin stared him in the face.

One thing would lead to another, and the motive for the crime be readily deduced from the crime itself. Jewson saw his elaborate plot falling asunder like a house of cards, and involving himself in its destruction. Devenish had not been a month at sea; letters would chase him round the Horn, and the truth would reach England almost as soon as the lies. That marriage would never take place. That ?2000 would never be paid. That hold upon a young married man of means and of position would not be given to Jewson as a lifelong asset after all. On the contrary, the petty theft might be brought home to him, and he might go to the hulks off Williamstown instead of back to England with an assured competence for his declining years. He did not believe this could happen to him – he was a far-seeing rogue – but the rest would follow as surely as Denis came up from the depths and the informer returned to keep his word.

Flight seemed the only course; a successful flight would at least avert the most unpleasant possibilities of the case. But darker thoughts passed through the steward's mind, and took him stealthily to the mouth of the shaft. A dull yet distinct chip-chipping was audible far below and out of sight along the drive. If only that sound could cease forever! If only the maker of the sound were never to come up alive! Then everything would be simplified; and Captain Devenish need not know of his death for years. Besides, it was an accidental death of which Jewson was thinking; he had looked at the rope with the bucket hanging to it, but only to remember that one man at least was prepared for even that villainy at his hands. Jewson shook his head. He was not so bad as all that. He was really only a potential criminal, who had seldom put himself within reach of the law. He might wish that the shaft would fall in and bury his enemy, but he was no murderer even in his heart.

Suddenly he gave a start, and then stood very still; stepping softly to the far side of the shaft, he had come suddenly upon a huge snake curled up and basking on the hard hot ground. It was not the sight, however, that made Jewson shiver; that was not particularly uncommon or untoward; the chilling thing was the thought that had flown into the breast which had not been that of a murderer before. Now it was; but even now the mean monster did not realize that the temptation upon him was the temptation of Cain; and he yielded to it, villain as he was, with eyes shut to the enormity.

The dangling bucket was gently lifted from its hook, was nimbly clapped upon the sleeping serpent, and kept in position with one foot; striding with the other to within reach of the heap of wash-dirt, the steward filled his hat with this, and then reversing the bucket with equal courage and dexterity, had the snake buried in the stuff in an instant, and the bucket back on its hook in another. A quick swing over the side of the shaft, and down went the bucket of its own weight, with the snake already hanging over one edge. But Jewson let every inch of the rope run red-hot through his hands, to lessen the noise of the windlass; and yet when it reached the bottom, gently, very gently, there was the chip-chipping still to be heard in the bowels of the drift.



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