Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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One lovely morning in early May, after a whole long Sunday spent with Nan, the visitor had been first abroad before breakfast, and by merest chance had met the postman at the gate. Without an evil thought, Ralph had taken the letters from him, only to behold one from Denis to Nan on top of the pile. He stood where he was until the postman's steps rang away into silence along the hard highway. It was Denis's writing, without a doubt: the superscription on the fraudulent parcel was written indelibly in Ralph's brain; this letter was directed in the same hand; it bore the new Ballarat postmark; and until the sight of it Ralph had almost forgotten there was such a place, or such a person as Denis Dent. He had been equally absorbed in town and in the country. The cloud of war had obscured the past; the sun of love had blinded him to its consequences. Even the soul-destroying thought of the packet he had posted – the packet with which Jewson had obviously tampered – the packet on whose changed contents he himself was trading every day – even the thought of that had quite ceased to bother Ralph. He was not a man of much imagination. Dent and Jewson were at the opposite end of the world, a hundred days' sail at a flattering average; what was the use of bothering about Jewson or Dent? Yet on Jewson he had been relying more than he knew until this moment. The dirty work had been left in Jewson's hands; but until now, when he saw an important branch of it neglected, Devenish had not chosen to realize what the dirty work would be. Here was a letter from Denis to Nan. It should never have been allowed to reach the post. Jewson was not to be trusted after all.

Standing there in the fresh May sunshine, his ears filled with the morning song of birds, his nostrils with the thousand scents of the countryside, Ralph Devenish, annoyed and nonplused as he well might be, was still a comparatively honest man. A certain element of self-deception lingered in his dishonour. At the worst he had been a passive traitor to this point: nor was the next step downward taken in cold blood. A window opened behind his back, and Nan's voice hailed him from her room.

"Anything for me, Ralph?"

He wheeled about, but approached the house slowly, shuffling the pack on his way.

"I'm afraid not; but there's one for me."

And he pocketed her letter under her eyes.

"A bothersome one?" she asked, looking down from her window upon his bent head and rounded shoulders.

"I'm afraid so, Nan."

He had not looked up.

"But you didn't open it, did you?"

"No – that's why!" he cried grimly; and pleased with his own readiness he could look up now and meet her eyes. "They sha'n't badger me down here," said Ralph. "It can keep until I get back to town."

But it kept as insecurely as skeleton in open cupboard; not a moment was the letter off his mind. He lodged it in his innermost pocket, yet could not restrain his fingers from feeling if it were there; he buttoned up his coat, only to feel outside.

A bank-note for a thousand pounds would have burdened him less; for his embarrassment went beyond the moment; the worst part of it was undoubtedly to come. But he must know the worst, and to get at it he must glance at the letter first or last. That was an absolute necessity of the situation, and the exigency itself was to Ralph Devenish the worst of all. Was it not written that his honour was dying hard? It was not quite dead yet.

He must get back to town first thing, so he told them at the breakfast-table; but Nan, seeing his trouble, inveigled him into the garden for a last turn (it might always be the last indeed), and in the narrow avenue, now nearly covered in for the summer, abruptly asked him if he had opened his letter.

"Not yet," he answered hoarsely. "It can keep till I get back."

"But it is bothering you."

"I know."

"It may not prove as unpleasant as you imagine."

"That is unlikely."

"If I were you I should prefer to know the worst; and if I trusted any one as you say you trust me – "

"Trust you! Nan, I – "

He had halted abruptly; but it was her face that stopped his tongue.

"Hush!" she commanded. "I have heard enough of all that, enough to last me all my life; but if you trust me as a friend, as you've said you do and promised you will, you might take me into your trouble, open your letter, and let us face whatever it contains together."

His tongue clove in his head; with a ghastly laugh he managed to refuse at last. Her curiosity was now on fire. And to gratify the sudden passion she stooped to a level of which she was very soon and very bitterly ashamed.

"If you ever want me to feel differently toward you – ever, ever, when we are both middle-aged people – you must begin by trusting me now!"

So spoke Nan, as unworthily as she was prompted, on the spur of a moment which marked an epoch in her life; but even the immediate effect was sufficiently sensational; for with a cry that was almost a sob, the conscience-stricken wretch broke away from her, and fled through the checkered sunlight of the narrow avenue, like the madman her words had made him.

Nan was puzzled and displeased, first with him, afterward and more seriously with herself. She remembered and deplored what she had said. If she had given him ground for hope! That would be terrible – unpardonable – an offense against God and man. And yet the evidence of his passion displeased her least; and least of all the indirect evidence contained in a few lines of explanation which a private messenger brought her during the day; for while they accounted for his conduct of the morning, they displayed an intention so in accordance with her wishes as to relieve her mind of many misgivings.

"I made sure it was my orders to sail," wrote Ralph, with a wise brevity. "I was wrong, but I made sure I was right, and yet I could not trust myself to know it for certain without telling you, or to tell you and then say good-bye as you would have me say it! Forgive me if you can. It was a sudden madness, and as it turns out there was little or no justification for it. Still, as a matter of fact, they do talk of sending me out with a draft next month. That will be soon enough. Yet in one way you know it could not come too soon for me. Oh, Nan, I am torn two ways!"

And yet this glib liar had not then summoned up the moral or immoral courage to open her letter; part of the glibness sprang from that last grain of virtue. He might not open it after all, could not all that day, with officers and gentlemen jostling him at every turn. It was only late at night, in the privacy of his own quarters, that the absolute necessity presented itself with fresh force, and with a sudden oath the envelope was ripped open; but even then the letter itself was glanced at rather than read.

Endearment and protestation this reader could indeed afford to skip; but what he could not help seeing in this kind at once hardened and inflamed his heart. He called her his. His, forsooth, his! Ralph ran a blazing eye over all that, tried another page, read a little, caught his breath, read backward and then forward in a skin of ice. Jewson was dead, killed by a snake! That was bad enough, but it was a trifle to what followed; for much had since come out, and more was suspected of the dead man. He had drugged some beer and stolen a nugget which Nan should have received a month ago. That much was proved. The nugget had been found; there could be little doubt that he had stolen the letter which was to have accompanied it. And here Denis reproached himself with having written so seldom, not once a month as yet; but in the first few weeks of abject failure he had never had the heart to write, but once, and for reasons given he could not be sure that even that letter had not fallen into the same dead hands.

Devenish held his breath. Was he suspected also? Yes, he could see that he was; he could read it between the lines; and his heart reviled the writer for suppressing his suspicions. There was no generosity in Ralph, and he wanted none from Denis.

"You will be seeing something of Ralph Devenish," the innocent could write. "You might ask him whether Jewson, to Ralph's knowledge, ever called at our first camp. He never did when I was there, but I remember thinking of him when Moseley told me a strange digger had offered to take our letters. He bore me a grudge as you know. But I can still hardly think he bore me such a grudge as that, or you any grudge at all. I should be glad if you had an opportunity of speaking to Ralph Devenish on the subject. The wretched man was his servant at the time, so perhaps he could enlighten us a little. If he can I am sure he will."

Sure, was he? Sure of Ralph? What was the use of such transparent lies? Ralph himself was only enraged by them; they accentuated his meanness and the other's magnanimity. He forgot that they could not have borne such significance to Nan, that she would have suspected nothing, and that the letter after all was written to her. He read on as though it had been written to himself; and the end left him icy sick. Not because Denis had already made several thousands out of his fabulous claim, and upward of ?2,500 by a single nugget found in the hour that was so nearly his last. He was welcome to his filthy gold. It was neither record nor assurance of monetary success that froze Ralph's blood; it was Denis's promise to make amends in the matter of correspondence, to write in future by every possible ship, and to post his letters with his own hand.

Ralph felt easier when he had destroyed this one; he was only thankful he had read it now; to have destroyed it unread would have been his ruin. But it was only the first. What of all the rest? Could he hope to intercept a series? Was there no postman or postmaster whom he could suborn to intercept them for him?

No – that was far too dangerous. No more assistant rascals for Ralph! Henceforward he would do his own dirty work; he approached it forthwith without a qualm, but, on the contrary, with the spirited intelligence of a bold nature and an educated brain.

His first care was to arrange with Lloyd's for immediate advice upon the signaling of any homeward-bound Australian packet at the Lizard or other Channel station; in each case, separate post-office inquiries were the next step; and it was from this point that Ralph's appearances in Hertfordshire became as delightfully erratic as the Merridews found them. So far everything was plain sailing. It was the actual interception of the letters which was fraught with inconceivable difficulty and incessant danger.

Its unforeseen variety was its greatest curse. If the letter came in the morning, well and good; but once it was only due by the evening delivery, and then Devenish fetched all the letters from the village post-office on some impudent pretext. He always met the early postman at the gate.

"You see they know where to put their finger on me now," he said to Nan, in presumed reference to the War Office. "Since that one fright I got down here I want to know the worst at the earliest possible moment. Yet but for you it would be the best, and even in spite of you I can't tell you how I burn to go. If only you would let me leave you on the one footing which would make me a happy man!"

For it had come to this: he had proposed repeatedly and gained the stage of receiving a fair hearing and some faint encouragement. "Some day – perhaps!" she said, with a stress which indicated a very distant day indeed; and that, of course, was no promise; nor was the pale prospect accompanied by any hope on Nan's part that she could ever love him as she should. Her heart was dead or numb; he heard it again and again, without loss of confidence in his power to quicken it in the end. And this self-confidence stood Ralph in equal stead with Nan and with his own soul: not from the first, yet in a very few weeks, he was playing a winning if a waiting game. He learned from her lips how he had improved in her sight; and though unable to believe there had been so much room for improvement, he was careful to keep the ground thus won in her regard. It was so at every point of his advance. Here and there the gain was trifling, but he never lost an inch.

Ralph had an open and yet silent ally in Mr. Merridew; of old he had always wanted this marriage, and now he wanted it more than ever. Nan was not happy; it was the one thing to make her happy. He would have told her so every day but for a plain word in the beginning from Ralph himself. "Din me in her ears," said he, "and I am done; leave it to her, and there is a chance for me. But never another word against Denis Dent; if his name comes up, make excuses for him. You don't know women as I know them, sir, or I wouldn't presume to offer you such advice."

It was followed, however, with all loyalty and devotion to their common cause. Not for weeks did the father venture to express any further opinion in the matter; and when he did break silence the occasion justified him. Captain Devenish was ordered out at last. Typhus, dysentery and ague had descended upon the Guards' camp at Aladyn close to Varna; thither Devenish was to sail before the end of June, in charge of a draft to replace those fallen in this unfair fight.

It was Mr. Merridew who brought the news home from the City, and capped it with the conviction, now indeed general, that there would be hard fighting somewhere before the end. The resolution to attack Sebastopol was not yet taken, but the probability had long been in the air, and Mr. Merridew spoke of it as an absolute certainty. It might be a short campaign; but from the character of a map which he spread out Mr. Merridew was not of that opinion. Nan took but a perfunctory interest in the map; she knew very well what had been in her father's mind for weeks, and she was entirely prepared for what was coming now.

"Whatever may be before them, you may depend the Guards will be in the van," said Mr. Merridew, grandly. "The chances are that many of them will never come back; but we won't think of that. Suppose they are away a year. Think of Ralph and of yourself. Imagine his torments all that time, fighting for his country, and yet uncertain of you! How can you expect him – not to do his duty, for that we know he will – but to be as efficient as a soldier with a single and a settled mind?"

"He is certain enough," said Nan, sulking sweetly, "if he can wait."

"But nothing is so uncertain as such a future!"

"Well, I can't marry him before he goes, can I?"

It was said flippantly, yet with a certain feeling far back in the mind.

"I don't know about that. Would you if you could, Nan?"

"It might save complications, if he is to be away a year! Suppose some one else were to come home during the year, you know!" added Nan, with undiminished flippancy; yet this was the thought at the back of her brain, and she was entertaining it in bitter earnest.

"Ah, poor Dent!" said Merridew, advisedly, as he grasped her meaning.

"You needn't pity him; he will come back rich, if not with a wife," said the girl whom Devenish knew so well.

Mr. Merridew came back to his point, after a pause intended to break the thread of painful association, as it did.

"But would you marry Ralph if there was time?"

"There isn't time."

"I don't know. I wish I knew the date he sails. It may be later than we think."

And the budding strategist dropped the subject with a tact which was growing on him with the conduct of this affair. But first thing next morning Ralph and he were closeted in his private office.

"Splendid! splendid!" cried the younger man. "Another word from you might have spoiled everything. I will run down this minute and say the rest for myself."

"But is it possible, Ralph?"

"With a special license it would be possible to-morrow."

"And how long have you?"

"I hope a month. Time enough for banns, if you like. We can get them put up this Sunday."

John Merridew looked at the young man sitting before him, his dark face flushed, his dark eyes sparkling – handsome, eager, and exultant – without a misgiving or a qualm for mortal eye to see.

"You are very confident, Ralph!"

"I am."

CHAPTER XXVI
HOMEWARD BOUND

That very month of May saw Denis deep in an orderly determination of his Australian affairs. These were in a state scarcely credible, but for the fact that his case was not unique. Denis was not the only lucky digger of his day, but he was one of the few who made the most of their good fortune. Half the blood in his veins was averse from squandering, but every drop was on fire for his reward. Suffice it that the sweat rolled off him until he had his ten thousand safe, and enough over to carry him home; there followed civil strife between the two distinct natures whose union in one body made Denis what he was. He must sail by the first ship. He must stay to set his house in order. He could not do both. Yet half the house was his, however come by, and it went against his Yorkshire grain to give it up altogether. The claim was still paying handsomely. A second tunnel had been driven north; and it was to be a longer tunnel, since that good neighbour with the black beard had pegged out on the northern boundary of the claim, to obviate a hostile encroachment back and front, on the very natural understanding that he should join Doherty when Dent was gone. And yet Denis was loth to go.

It was not for the financial sacrifice, though he was sufficiently alive to that. What was ten thousand pounds to take to Nan? It seemed almost criminal to go to her with so little when in a few more months he might have doubled it. Yet there was more to urge on the other side, and it was not the gold that he was grieved to leave. It was the work of his hands. The claim was largely that; the two tunnels were that and nothing else. Much had been given him, but it had been given into the right hands. Denis had carried on an excellent and shrewd bit of work with a thoroughness and an intelligence at least worthy of his predecessor; they were alike in this, that both had a soul aside from the mere gold; and Denis took as much pride in every inch of his two drives as the sinker had taken in every slab of his splendid shaft.

The others realized how much was due to the outgoing partner, and it was they who first begged him to retain a share. At first he refused. "Very well, mister. Then I come with you," said Doherty; and that was an argument; for Denis did not want the lad in England, much less at first, strongly attached as they had become. He had to listen after that, and at last consented to reap a small profit till the year's end, "in case," he said to Doherty's new mate, "things are not as I expect to find them in the old country, and I should want to come straight out again. Then I should be back for Christmas; and it would be like coming home." He said it with a smile, yet it was significant that he did not say it in Doherty's hearing; and the mere possibility of the thing he voiced, however remote, turned Denis sick at heart at the very time when Ralph Devenish was most confident in London.

His arrangements were concluded with some abruptness, but they showed a sound foresight in every detail. He had a draft on the Rothschilds (from the Montefiore then in Melbourne) for his entire savings of nearly eleven thousand pounds; one duplicate he took with him in the ship, another was to follow in the next vessel carrying mails. And there was now no dearth of ships, for Melbourne in these seven or eight months had evolved from the colossal encampment into the rudimentary city.

Of course Doherty came down to see him off, which he did with the liveliest lamentations; but already Denis had his eyes fixed on the old world, and his chief trouble was the time that it must take to get there.

"I'll follow ye, dear old mister!" whimpered the lad. "I'll be after you before the year's out – unless I hear as you're on your own way back!"

He stood on the quay, but a ragged young boor – unlettered child of felons – unshriven son of the soil – yet worth twice his weight in gold in all senses of the homely phrase. And the troubled face, with the tears rolling grotesquely over the tan, was the last that Denis looked on in a land as rich in such contrasts as in the precious metal itself.

The voyage took a hundred and thirty days, and was the longest Denis had ever made; but it must have seemed so to him in any case, for the gold-fever had passed its crisis, and now there were more sailors than enough to man the many ships, so that he found himself a passenger perforce for the first time in his life. And after a fortnight of heavenly rest, the idleness became more irksome to his temperament every day. Instead of reveling in the luxury of seeing others staggering in dripping oilskins, of hearing the starboard watch piped on deck, and of turning over on the other side, Denis would sooner have paid the second officer to change places with him. He missed the crowded hours, and the sense of responsibility so long associated with the sea; they had made his former ships fly their latitudes like hurdles, where this one crawled and climbed.



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