Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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Her satisfaction diminished as she heard of the wonderful doings on the new claim. Yet, after all, he had only been there a fortnight when Ralph left, and so immediate a success would in itself account for much. It must absorb every energy and every hour.

"Hand over fist!" said Ralph, laughing genially. "That's how the fellow was taking out the gold when I came away; at least, so I heard."

"Then you didn't see much of him yourself?"

"No, not much."

He might have added "naturally"; but the word was implied in his tone, which itself was as natural as could be. Nan noted and admired it. She was becoming more and more impressed with the general improvement in her companion. But it was another thought that kept her silent as they strolled to and fro upon the twilit sward.

"I suppose it is all in gold-dust," she speculated. "I know it is not in nuggets."

"Oh, isn't it?" he said quickly. "Then you have heard?"

Nan bit her lip.

"No, I have not heard, and you know I haven't!" she exclaimed with more tartness than discretion.

"My dear Nan, how could I know?" he asked, and with the utmost readiness, though her father had lost no time in informing him of the fact.

"I thought you must know," she said with a sigh that touched him and yet rankled. "I beg your pardon, Ralph. As for the nuggets, he promised to send me the first one he found, for luck; and he never broke a promise in his life."

"Perhaps it was too big to send," said Ralph, with his new and kindly laugh. "Or perhaps," he added, stopping in his walk, "perhaps this is it!"

A parlour-maid was approaching with a small salver. Nan raised her downcast eyes, and at a glance stood rooted to the spot. There was no letter on the salver, but there was a very small brown-paper parcel, which Nan seized and held in the half-light to her dancing eyes. And then for one unconscious instant she pressed it with both hands to her bosom.

"Oh, Ralph!" she cried in a voice like the song of a lark. "Did you ever hear of such a coincidence in your life? It isn't one – it's a miracle! Look: his writing, the Melbourne postmark: the nugget he promised me, come as we were speaking about it, from the other end of the world!"

Ralph set his teeth grimly; he had brought these confidences on himself, and Heaven alone knew how much more. He had not tampered with the parcel which Jewson had given him before he left the diggings; here it was as he had posted it in Melbourne, as it had lain in its mail-bag between the same wooden walls which had been his own prison for the last three months. He had no idea what the parcel contained; from Jewson's face and manner, as he remembered them at the last, Ralph did not think it was the nugget. But with a villain like that you never knew: he might have gone straight over to the other side, the richer side even then.

Nan was too excited to notice Ralph's excitement, and yet it was greater than hers.

In her heart there was no longer the least suspense. This was the nugget. She was alive once more; and the world she had maligned in her heart, it was a dear world after all. Neither was Ralph its least dear denizen. Here was his penknife, out in a moment, one blade open; she never noted how it trembled as it cut the string. She was even unaware that Ralph stood looking over her shoulder, for it was by pure instinct that she had turned away.

Nor was there much for Ralph to see: what he first perceived was the difference in Nan. She was standing as in stone or wax, as breathless, as motionless, as unbending, as unalive to the eye. Over her shoulder, as in a waxen palm, he saw the glint and glimmer of a ring with three small stones of different hues. Then something fell, and he stooped to pick it up. In an instant her heel was on it, crushing it into the soft grass, but not before he had looked upon a plaited guard of finest hair. The shade was her own dark-gold; it seemed to Devenish that the very curl of her ringlets was preserved in the plaited wisp which he saw for an instant in the grass. He had the tact to pretend he had not seen it, to turn away and search further afield. But in his heart he was raging and railing against the author of this unforeseen infamy. What a devilish dodge! What a cruel and what a dastardly deception! Had he known of it he never would have posted the thing; and yet, now that he did know, was he to tell her? If so, what was he to tell?

The parcel might have been made up by Denis, for all Ralph actually knew. Denis might be false for all he knew, the traditional sailor with the wife in every port. Ralph's heart lightened at the thought; after all, how could he know? It was the triumph of a diabolical genius that he could know nothing absolutely, that he could lay this unction to his soul at every step, if he lacked the pluck to look his villainy in the face. And for the moment his embarrassment made Ralph Devenish as mean a villain as crawled the earth.

Nan was speaking. She might have been yards away instead of inches. He heard her faintly as he groped.

"What are you doing? I found what I dropped. Thanks for troubling. I am going in, I think. There – there was no letter after all." So she explained the heart-break in her voice; nothing else would have betrayed her.

She found herself in her room. The candles were lighted. Yes, that was her face, and she could look in it calmly, more calmly than many a time in her suspense. Her shame was not deeper than it had been ever since the day of her deplorable escape from kindly death. To know the worst is often less terrible than to fear it. That is one of Nature's mercies, and Nan felt it in a moment. She was blessed with the strong heart and the clear eye. She saw everything that was to be seen of her case, and she flinched at nothing that she saw. Only, as she sat before her glass in the chilly candle-light, she seemed to be looking upon another person, and into another heart.

An hour later she was shining with a hard radiance at the little dinner-table. Fine wines were brought up in the wanderer's honour; for once Nan let them fill her glass. Her mood was not unlike that of Ralph. He was equally determined to talk and not to think. They rattled on together like the oldest and the warmest friends. She sympathized with his disappointment and anxiety about the war, but hoped they would not send him out too soon, and could have groaned when he told her with airy cunning that it was quite on the cards that they might not meet again. He took her out of herself; he also gave her an unreasonable sense of retaliation. She certainly desired to see him again, and told him so frankly when he left.

Mr. Merridew was too puzzled to enjoy the other sensations which knocked for admittance to his mind. Devenish had told him nothing of the garden incident, partly from instinctive discretion, partly from a reluctance to enlarge the circle of his dupes before he must; but no sooner was he gone than Nan beckoned her father into the drawing-room and shut the door behind them both.

"Here is a ring," she said. "I want you to keep it for me in your safe – at least, for Mr. Dent."

It was not the ring that had traveled back to her from Ballarat. It was his father's ring, that Denis had lent her. And she had worn it about her neck since landing in England, because that was the way he was forced to wear hers, and it was nearer her heart, but away from prying eyes. Mr. Merridew took it between finger and thumb.

"Mr. Dent!" he echoed. "What in the world has happened?"

"Nothing terrible; only our engagement is broken off."

"You have heard from him, then?"

"Yes, this evening."

"And this is how he breaks his insulting silence!"

Already the father was trembling with rage and indignation; the girl was curiously serene.

"He doesn't even break it," she said. "He simply does what we arranged that either of us should do if we ever changed. And he is quite right."

"Right!" cried Mr. Merridew. "Quite right? Is the girl gone mad? The heartless blackguard, the insolent snob! But you are well rid of him, you are well rid."

Nan recoiled, stricken but roused. "You hurt me once by reminding me of things," she said quickly, in a low and passionate voice. "Don't hurt me more by forcing me to remind you of them. We made our own arrangement in the after saloon on board the Memnon when we said good-bye. It has nothing to do with anybody else, and nobody else can say a word against him if I do not."

"And don't you?" he cried. "And do you mean to say you don't?"

"Not a syllable," said the girl. "He has done the honest thing."

"The honest thing!"

"He could not pretend if he would."

"And you don't despise him for it – you have no contempt for him?"

Nan looked steadily on her father's horror.

"I honour him for it, as I always have," she said.

CHAPTER XXIV
DEATH'S DOOR

Chip, chip, chip, rang the driving-pick along the top of the drive, as it pricked its way from left to right, leaving a chain of holes in the rude right-angle under the arch; and chip, chip, back the other way, between the holes, till they united in one curved crevice, wherein the fingers could be passed from wall to wall, and the continued stability of the roof felt with the knuckles. Then a spell of harder and less cautious hitting, an interval of falling chunk and showering gravel, a period of irritation to throat and eyes. Presently a downward stroke, with more power behind it the lower one got; and in the end an advance from top to bottom of as many inches as the introductory crevice had been deep. So slaved Denis in his drive; so was he slaving when Jewson just heard him from above, on the 7th of February, 1854.

It meant lying prone in the earth by the hour together, an elbow pillowed in the morning's d?bris, the body aching in every inch. It meant a complete skin of the mud of dust and dirt and copious perspiration. It meant an atmosphere heated and poisoned by the flame of a single candle, a tickling throat, a trickling eye, an intermittent rigour of the lower limbs, a daily foretaste of paralysis. But it also meant a continuous excitement and an enduring satisfaction which to Denis were worth all these evils at once and at their worst. The drift was as rich as ever; and now it needed neither pan nor cradle to tell him so. He knew it at a glance, knew it by the light of his solitary candle. So far the wash-dirt had yielded a little more or a little less to the tub; its outward characteristics had not altered; but they always might. At any moment, after the next blow with the driving-pick, or the next – or the next – a change might be observable. It could hardly be a change for the better; thus each unchanged handful was to the good, and the uncertainty of every minute its fascination. Leads and gutters were notoriously capricious, and Denis was prepared for any caprice but the one that he encountered this very morning.

He had prolonged the roof a few more inches; the new chain of holes had resolved itself into another semicircular crevice, and to the knuckles the fresh roof was as firm as the old. Denis was dealing the random blows which were always a relief to him after this niggling work, when suddenly nothing fell, but the pick-handle dragged at his hand. The point of the pick had stuck; he gave it a gentle unavailing tug, but it was high up under the arch, and he had to alter his position before he could pull with any power. By this time he was trembling like a leaf; and still the pick stuck fast.

He drew his legs up under him, left the pick embedded, and began prodding near it with his knife. Presently the knife stuck too; this was some inches under the pick, and he had to work the blade backward and forward to release the point.

Denis could hardly breathe.

It must be a nugget – it must – it must – and if a nugget then the largest found on Ballarat for a twelvemonth.

It might even rival the two giant nuggets, worth thousands apiece, got from Canadian Gully at the beginning of the previous year; the nuggets of which Doherty had spoken after the wreck; the nuggets which first inflamed them both!

With fingers and knife he scraped down to it, then felt it with his fingers, then scraped it with his knife; and the point of the knife, held close to the candle, showed a filament of virgin gold upon the steel.

Denis closed his eyes and breathed thanksgiving; then to the handle of the pick once more, to prize the great mass loose in its gravelly bed. A shower from the roof at once deterred him. There was no guessing the size of a nugget like this. Its incontinent removal might cause such a subsidence as to bury him alive in the moment of his triumph; cautious even then, Denis blew out the light, screwed himself round on his own acrobatic principle, and began a trip to the top for props.

What time was it? Had Doherty returned? Could he trust Jewson to raise him in the bucket? He was looking pathetically far ahead; but there was the mouth of the drive glimmering within a few feet of him, and as yet Denis had not noticed any novelty in the intervening ground.

Now he noticed it; there was a lump of something, and the lump was moving. Then it lay still, but strangely extended. And two glittering little eyes were gazing into his at not more than eighteen inches' range.

Denis knew them on the instant for the eyes of an enormous snake. The tapering tail ran back into the light at the tunnel's mouth, as a river reappears beyond its woods; it was beautifully marked to its gracefully writhing tip; its glossy scales, where the daylight caught them, were as a suit of silver mail. All this Denis noted without taking his eyes from the small malignant pair in the zone of darkness between him and the light. And he thought of everything; that he was stripped to the waist, and utterly unarmed; that he had left his very knife behind him, and why he had taken it out, and what else he was leaving for men to find beyond his body. What a death to die! What an inglorious end! Its bitter and gratuitous irony was a redeeming point rather than an aggravation to a mind already distorted by such a strain in such an hour.

His eyes still gazing into the eyes of death, he thought of the two pioneer prospectors of California who wandered finding nothing until one died by the way; the other had just strength to dig his grave; and in so doing his pick stuck into such a nugget as Denis himself had found, only to lose it with his life. He was not a very egotistical man. Yet it was a certain satisfaction to him to feel that he would pass into history with the other poor devil who changed places with the other nugget.

Whether minutes or only moments flew in such thoughts, Denis never knew; but at last the other eyes rose suddenly, as the serpent arched its neck to spring. Instinctively Denis followed suit, was felled to his face by the roof of the tunnel, and lay stunned as mercifully as beast for slaughter.

Much more mercifully; for the snake recoiled, first in fright, finally in disgust. The snake must kill its own. Denis owed his respite to that law of reptile nature; he seemed dead enough already.

But he was sufficiently alive long before he dared betray sign of life. Luckily he remembered everything in a flash; and so lay waiting for the last. One thing seemed certain: he had not been bitten yet. There was no sense of pain or swelling; no heavy coil oppressed his flesh; no jets of baleful breath played upon his skin; and in his near neighbourhood nothing stirred. But far away he fancied he could hear the slightest of sibilant sounds, and by degrees he opened his eyes. In his position he could not see many inches in front of him, but they were inches of bare ground. He raised his head imperceptibly: the snake was circling round the patch of daylight at the bottom of the shaft, gliding half its length up its slippery sides, darting its forked tongue out and in, and slowly moving its head as if seeking for some hole.

Denis considered without moving a muscle. If he were armed he would creep on his belly like the snake itself and trust to his dexterity to strike the first blow. But he was not armed. He had no weapon of any sort; the one good weapon in the drive was fast in the nugget – ah! The nugget! He had forgotten it; the remembrance was like a glass of spirit. There behind him, within reach almost of his feet, was the only weapon worth thinking about – worth an effort – worth a risk.

Very slowly, very laboriously, he crawled backward until his foot did touch the wooden haft of the driving-pick. The snake was still circling at the bottom of the shaft. Turning suddenly, seizing the haft with one hand, and the unburied end of the pick with the other, Denis twisted it as a gimlet, and had it out at one wrench. Simple though the expedient, it had only occurred to him as he crawled backward for his life.

Now he was crawling forward again, feeling his way with the pick, his open knife between his teeth; and he crawled with less caution, savouring the fight. The pick rang against a stone. The snake was aroused. Its body writhed in angry knots and circles, still in the square of daylight, but now with tongue darting and eyes piercing into the mouth of the tunnel at each contortion. Denis felt its body was about to follow, made the rush himself on hands and knees, frightened the enemy by so doing, and next instant had its neck nailed to the ground at one lucky blow; but as he scrambled out its folds flew round his leg, crushing it horribly and irresistibly drawing it towards its head. The blood ran down Denis's chin as he plucked the open knife from his teeth. Then the strong blade sawed through the slimy body a foot below the head. But for long the headless coils wrung the slayer's leg, while the forked tongue played in and out of the bleeding remnant on the ground.

At last he leaned lame but unencumbered against the side of the shaft. The sun was in the zenith; it lit the slabs on two sides half-way down. Denis knew the sunlight was there, though he could not lift his head to look on it again. He was sick, dizzy, and in pain; with more space or a less loathsome litter he would have stretched himself out where he was. As it was he hugged the slabs in a standing swoon until a voice came down to him from the mouth of the shaft.

"Mister! Mister! Dent! Denis!"

He reeled and raised a ghastly face.

"What's the matter down there?"

"Nothing; only I was nearly killed by a snake."

"A snake!"

"A carpet snake; but I killed it, thank God."

"A carpet snake!"

"Nearly eight feet long."

"Why, there's one up here about the same size, must be its mate. That one must have fallen down. I've killed this one!"

But the raised voice quavered; the lad was whimpering, shivering against the sky. Denis became himself.

"Let down the bucket, Jimmy."

"Oh! Oh! I haven't got the strength to draw you up, I know!"

"What's happened – what else?"

"It's Jewson," the boy's voice came blubbering down.

"What's happened to him?"

"The other snake was round him – and he doesn't move!"

CHAPTER XXV
BEAT OF DRUM

The imbroglio with Russia had at this time scarcely earned the name of war. Half-hearted hostilities there had been for months; but a halting diplomacy had not altogether abandoned its ineffectual functions, and even at the latter end of April a hope was breathed from the highest quarter that peace might still be restored between the contending countries. Little as yet was heard of the Crimea, much less of its invasion by the allies. But the Brigade of Guards was actually on its way from Malta to Scutari.

The uncertainty in the official mind was exemplified in the case of Captain Devenish, who, though unfeignedly eager to join his fortunate battalion on the Bosphorus, was provisionally attached to one of those remaining at Wellington Barracks. It is true that he was ordered to hold himself in readiness to embark at the shortest possible notice; but in the constant society of disgusted officers, who consoled themselves with the conviction that there would be no serious fighting after all, Ralph soon absorbed their views, and began to look upon himself as a permanent ornament to the streets of London and the lanes of Hertfordshire. It was only in Hertfordshire itself that he affected a different feeling, openly congratulating himself each week on his arrival, and seldom departing without some half-hopeful and half-heartbroken hint that it was very likely for the last time.

Not a week, in the beginning, without one of these visits; but erelong, scarcely a day. The extravagant fellow would arrive in hansoms at all hours, and go rattling back to barracks through the silent country in the middle of the night. Often he would stay; his room was always ready for him; but his goings and his comings were alike erratic, and that was part of their charm. In the very beginning he was never without some offering for Nan. She soon put a stop to that. The bustle and clatter and high spirits which he still brought with him, these were enough for the girl, who little dreamed of what nervous tension they were the outward and reactionary sign. Yet such was the explanation of the boisterous animation which so improved Devenish in her eyes, and it dated from the time when his visits became more frequent and irregular.



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