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?"
"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?"
"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.