Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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Mr. Kitto meanwhile had made up his mind. "We shall never find her alive," he whispered to his overseer, who arrived upon the scene a little before Denis's return. "But for that poor fellow's sake we must keep up the pretence a bit longer. I can see there was something between them; and when we find her body it will probably kill him; and after all every soul will have been lost. Did you know the bodies were beginning to come ashore? There's a little chap I take to be the skipper: last to leave and first to land."

"But you aren't looking for this girl among them?" the overseer exclaimed aghast.

"Not yet; but it will come to that," whispered Kitto. "I cooeyed till I was hoarse; that's why I can't raise my voice above a whisper now; and all the rest of us are in the same box. Mark my words, it's a case of suicide, and a fearful case: the poor thing was so terrified at her position when she awoke and found herself deserted on this desert coast, that it drove her clean out of her mind. I almost hope he won't live to realize it was that – though he's the sort we want in this colony – if he gave up the sea."

"Was there no tracking her?"

"Scarcely a yard from the mouth of the cave, and he doesn't know I did that; the sand is so heavy outside. But the tracks I did find pointed straight to the sea. I grant you there were not enough of them to mean anything in themselves."

They chanced to be passing close to the ti-tree clump as they conversed. Suddenly the overseer stood still.

"You've looked in there, I suppose?"

"In there? What would be the good? It's not above a dozen yards thick, though so dense; if she were alive in there she'd have heard us long ago; if she's dead she's in the sea. Why do you ask?"

"I thought I heard something. That was all."

They moved on a few yards.

"I say, Mr. Kitto, I do hear something! Listen, sir – listen to that!"

They heard the voice distinctly, faint and feeble though it was.

"I am dying!" it moaned. "Oh, Denis, where are you?"

Mr. Kitto almost choked.

"Thank God – but if she does die!" he croaked and whispered in one breath. "We're coming! We're coming, my dear, dear young lady! But," in his whisper, "who's that hobbling toward us – dot-and-carry-one? It's Dent, man, it's Dent himself; go and tell him like a good fellow – only don't raise too much hope." And deeply agitated, the squatter thrust his lantern among the outer branches of the thicket.

In an instant came the faint voice, immeasurably stronger, and poignant with a nameless agony:

"Take it away! Oh, take it way, or I must die – I must!"

Kitto flung his lantern far behind him: he had seen a terrified face among the branches, a burning face that told him all.

"And you have been here all day!" he cried, but chiefly to himself, in the inward glare of his enlightenment. "And I cooeying till I could cooey no more!"

"I thought it was savages," the voice in the clump faltered unconvincingly.

"I – I never heard it before – "

"We have everything ready for you," continued Kitto, cheerily: "hot coffee, plenty to eat, dry clothes, and our best bed when we get you to it. Here, take this to go on with." His coat came off with the words, and was thrust through the branches until he felt she had it. "Now I'll get you the rest," he said, and was hurrying off.

"Wait! Wait!" she called to him, and even more strongly than in her last alarm. "Where's Denis – Denis Dent? He was the second officer, and he saved me, he alone. I must speak to him first … to thank him … while I can!"

And her voice broke for him, as his had broken for her, but with more reason than Nan Merridew could dream; for Denis was lying close at hand on the beach, with the station overseer stooping over him.

CHAPTER V
A TOUCH OF FEVER

Denis awoke between clean sheets in the widest berth and the largest cabin he had ever occupied: it was a matter of moments to realize that he was really on land, for the bed still heaved a little as the beach had done yesterday, or whenever it was he had been washed ashore. He felt as though he had been asleep a week; he could not have imagined so delightful a lassitude of limb and spirit. It was a small room without pretense of paper upon its weather-board walls, but the toilet cover on Denis's left was as snowy as the sheet under his chin, and a sunlit blind flapped soothingly behind it. Silence reigned, but it was the peculiarly drowsy hush of hot weather, only the deeper for its innumerable tiny sounds: one could have heard that it was hot. But there was so little on him, that little was so light, and so sweet a draught blew through the room, that in his own person Denis felt deliciously cool.

He tried to remember how he had come there, but the final stages were a painful farrago. He beheld a bandage on either hand, and could feel one on head and foot; but they led him too far back. He had an impression of the stars as he lay upon the beach, and another of interminable steps with a handbreadth of starry sky at the top, but there was something far more important that he was seeking in his mind without avail. He certainly had not found it when the blind was pushed aside by a sun-burned face, which vanished instantly, to reappear with its appertaining shirt and moleskins in the doorway opposite.

"Awake at last, mister!"

"Only just," said Denis, feebly, but with his first smile, and the lad entered staring curiously.

"You couldn't look like that whilst we was seekin' her," said he, drily. "Why, what's wrong now?"

Denis had shot upright in bed.

"Didn't we find her?" he cried. "Yes, yes, of course we did! I remember now. I'm so grateful to you; that's exactly what I was trying to remember. Well? Well? And how is she?"

"Right as the mail, mister, so they all say; but I haven't seen her yet."

"You're sure they say so?"

"Sure as my name's Jimmy Dockerty."

Denis fell back with a whispered thanksgiving.

"What did you say your name was?" he asked presently.

"Dockerty," replied the boy. "Christian name of Jim."

"Well, Jim, I don't forget you. It was you I clapped eyes on first, and I'm almost as glad to see you again. Where am I exactly?"

"Merinderie Station: the barricks."

"The what?"

"Where the parlour men camp," explained Mr. Doherty, darkly. "You've got the tooter's room; he has his schoolroom next door."

"It's very quiet."

"They've all cleared out for the day, apuppus; and you ain't in the house, you see, though nice and handy. But I'll have to go over to the house, to tell 'em you've waked up. There was something ready for you the moment you did. But, I say – mister!" And the boy stood wistfully beside the bed.

"Well, Jim?"

"Ask for me to come back and set along of you! Say you feel lonely like, and ask for me to look arter you, mister. You needn't take no notice of me, and no more won't I say nothink, if you don't want."

"But I shall want, Jimmy. I shall want you to tell me heaps of things. Go and say so for me, by all means; and bring me anything they like to send, though a cup of tea is all I fancy."

But when a chop was sent in characteristic conjunction it was eaten with its slice of damper, and so heartily as to exclude immediate conversation.

"One thing at a time," said Denis, "and the next thing is a wash; but I don't mean to get up yet a bit."

"I wouldn't," said the boy, removing the tray and flourishing a towel. "The young lady, there ain't any signs of 'er either; I'll give you the word when there is."

Meanwhile the subject nearest Denis's heart was the one on which he could extract least information. Doherty did not warm to it as he did to other topics. And yet Denis could not help liking the lad; in the first place, the lad was openly enamoured of him, and the present Denis far too languid a hero to object very strenuously to his worship. There was nothing slavish about it; hardly a word was employed in its expression; but in the pauses the boy's eyes would remain upon the man's, and once he said he had been to see the place, and continued gazing at Denis and his bandages with redoubled reverence. It appeared that many bodies had been washed ashore, and Mr. Kitto with nearly all his men was down there now. Mrs. Kitto was at the other bedside, and had sent word that she preferred not to leave it in case her patient, who had been asleep many hours, should wake and miss her. Doherty suddenly remembered the message; it drove Denis back into yesterday's inferno, and he lay with such a pained face that the boy darted in with his own details. It was four o'clock in the afternoon: Denis had slept nineteen hours, but Miss Merridew was beating him. And they were the only survivors; not another soul had been saved.

Denis thought of the hundred souls on board, above all of Nan's father, her all in this world, to whose loss she would awake now any moment. And that was a thought which brought tears to the second mate's eyes, yet it was one with several facets, and presently his eyes were shining in quite a different way; then he caught himself, and little Jim saw the marine bronze deepen on the heroic cheek. But at last it was Jim's turn, for Denis turned to him as though impatient of himself.

"Now let's hear about you," he said. "How long have you been in Australia, Jim?"

"Only since I was born, and a bit before, and ever after, amen!" said Mr. Doherty; and the teeth displayed by his grin were certainly worthy of an aboriginal.

"And how long is that?" asked Denis, smiling, too.

"I don't know. They say as I am a good seventeen, but I don't look it, do I?"

"What! Don't know your own age?"

"Not to a year or two."

"Didn't your parents tell you?"

"I never had none, mister."

And Mr. Doherty grinned again.

"You don't remember, them?"

"That's what I mean. They were – I don't mind tellin' you, mister, though I'd rather bite my tongue out than tell another soul on the place" – and little Jim came sidling from his seat at the foot of the bed to an easy distance from Denis's ear, a dead secret in his astute young face. "But you'll think no worse of a cove," he went on, whispering, "and you won't split either; so it's a bit of a relief to tell you – they was both old hands."

"Old hands?"

"Lags!"

Now Denis understood. "Of course I don't think the less of you," he said, gently; "we are what we make ourselves, at any rate there's no credit in anything else we may be. I, for instance – "

But Denis had strength enough left to control his tongue, and his parents' memory was too sacred for association with that of transported felons, however little there might be to chose between their sons.

"It might be worse," the lad went on, with an elderly air the more pathetic for its unconscious humour: "they was married at Parramatta factory, and my mother let me know it when I was as high as this bed; it's the one thing I recollect her by, keepin' on tellin' me that; but 'im I never see as I remember. Parramatta factory," he continued, lifting his shrewd eyes once more, "was the place where they kep' the women prisoners, up on the Sydney side in the convict days; you could go and take your pick as long as you married her." The boy's stare grew into a contemplative grin, and Denis prepared for a familiarity. "There'll be need for you to go there," said Mr. Doherty.

Denis was not offended; either he was too stricken to be readily ruffled, or the young monkey had a way with him. He only rolled his head on the pillow, and questioned whether such an establishment existed still.

"It doesn't," rejoined Jim; "but even if it did, eh? You're all right, you see, so you can go on shaking your head till you loosen it! I seen, whether or no, last night when you couldn't."

"I don't want to know what you saw," cried Denis, vehemently enough; and lay quite agitated between the sheets.

"I suppose," the imp pursued, with a precocious union of tact and tenacity, "you'll go and get married straight away, and never let us see or hear from you again."

Denis set his teeth, not because the boy jarred, but at the gulf between this fancy picture and the possibilities of the case as it now stood. It was characteristic of him that for the first time they seemed impossibilities. He had saved her life, and now they were alone in the world, he and she: how could he trade on such things, how avoid the suspicion of trying to trade on them? If only another had saved her! If only others had been saved!

"Don't speak of it," he groaned. "I am far too poor."

"Too poor, are you?"

The boy had brightened.

"And she is too rich."

"Then what more do you want, mister?"

"What more? It should be the opposite way; we should both be one thing or the other. Anything but as we are!"

There was a brief intermezzo of the tiny summer noises. The blind flapped; a mosquito sang an ominous solo in the sick man's ear; from without came the faint hacking of an axe at the wood-heap. Denis looked up at last, and there sat Jim with a startlingly wise face upon his narrow young shoulders.

"Do you know what I should do, if I was you, mister?"

"Well, what?"

"If I felt same as you," said Mr. Doherty, "I'd make a fortune same as hers."

Denis smiled tolerantly; the urchin amused him.

"Well, and how would you do that?"

"I should go up to Ballarat, and peg out my claim, as sure as my name's Jimmy Dockerty!"

"It would have to be a lucky one," said Denis, dryly, though not until he had paused to think.

"Then it wouldn't be the only one," retorted Doherty, with the readiness of their common race.

Denis could not help dallying with the idea.

"Have they been doing such good business up there, then?"

"Good! Why, haven't you heard? There's never been such doings as they've had on Ballarat this year. I thought it was all over the world," the boy added, with shining eyes.

"It may be," said Denis, "but I've been at sea since June, and it isn't exactly in a sailor's line."

"Isn't it!" laughed Jimmy. "You wait till you see the empty ships in Hobson's Bay! Some of 'em been stuck there since the last day of January, when the fun began. Do you mean to say you never heard of the big finds in Canadian Gully?"

"You tell me, Jimmy. I want to hear."

Denis was leaning on an elbow. Jimmy had long been on his feet.

"There were some coves had a claim in Canadian Gully, on Ballarat," the boy began, a wild light in his face, a light that Denis had never seen before. "They were doing well, but not too well, and they offered to sell the hole for a matter of three hundred. Then one of them went down and came up with a nugget weighing sixty-six ounces!"

"At how much the ounce?"

"About four guineas."

"Well, that wasn't quite the three hundred."

"Stop a bit!" cried Doherty, a perfect fever in his eyes, a fever as new to Denis as the light upon the lad's face. "That was only the beginning of it. Of course they wouldn't sell after that. And before night they'd got a nugget of a hundred and twenty pounds. Troy weight – whatever that is – perhaps you can turn it into the other pounds, for I can't."

Denis sat forward, pressing the lint upon his forehead with his hands. When at length he looked up there was the same light beneath the bandages, the same fever in the still blood-shot eyes, as Denis himself had remarked in the face and eyes of his companion.

"Six thousand pounds!" he whispered almost aghast.

"Six thousand golden sovereigns!" shouted the lad, capering about the room. "Think of that, mister, think of that! I had it read to me out of the papers. I got it off by heart. It was one big, solid, yellow lump of gold, and they had to carry it between them slung to a pole. It wasn't the only one, neither; as they went tunneling on it stuck out of the sides, like bunches of grapes – at twenty pound a berry! There was only four on 'em in the party; they made their fortunes in less than no time; and two on 'em was new chums, same as you'd be if you went up and – and – "

"And what, boy?"

"And took me along with you!"

Denis only wondered that the little brown face, thrust so near him in its eagerness, did not burst into actual flame; it never occurred to him that his own was perhaps presenting the like phenomenon.

"You talk as though you'd been there already, Jimmy," said he.

"But I haven't. I'd only give my two ears to go. The boss won't let me. He says I'm too young; and he's been such a jolly good boss to me, I haven't the heart to go agin him, especially when he's promised me my kit if I wait till the Noo Year. But I b'lieve he'd give 'em me to-morrow, mister, if I was going up with you!"

It was a strange talk for Denis on the day after his deliverance, in the bed where they had laid him more dead than alive, but the manner of its ending was the strangest part of all. In the fever that was so new to Denis, that he had a touch of it before he dreamed there was such a disease, he not only forgot the perils through which he had passed, but his every sense turned blunt by comparison with the intensely keen edge put so suddenly on certain of his desires. He had not heard the voices outside; neither had Doherty; and the feet upon the threshold fell upon four equally deaf ears. It was not until Mr. Kitto opened the door, and entered first, that the one looked round and the other up.

"Here," said the squatter, "is a gentleman whom I know you will be heartily thankful to see again."

The gentleman stood forward with outstretched hands and a quivering lip.

It was John Merridew.

CHAPTER VI
NEW CONDITIONS

The following were the facts, as Denis grasped them by degrees.

Not many minutes had elapsed between the mishap to the port life-boat and the resolution of the North Foreland into so much wood and iron at the bottom of the sea, with a single top-gallant mast standing out to mark the place. But during those few minutes the minor disaster had caused another.

The loss of the first boat augured ill for the rest; and, indeed, only the chief officer's lived to salute the sun; but before it was launched, Miss Merridew had been swept overboard through the little faith of her own friends, who had lashed her life-belt to a fallen spar, only to give a gratuitous handle to the next great wave.

It was Captain Coles whose last remembered act had been to prevent one or both gentlemen from diving after her to their death – some said with his revolver at their heads; and, as if because neither seemed to care any longer for his life, these were the two male passengers to be saved. They were dragged into the mate's boat. The boat was successfully launched by a mixture of good management and better luck. But it was entirely to the mate's credit that she immediately stood out to sea, and so continued until picked up by a coasting vessel, which landed the party in Melbourne before night. The post-haste journey to the landward scene of the wreck, all that night and nearly all next day (it was a matter of a hundred miles up and across country), was only such as any father would have undertaken in the circumstances, and most men in Ralph Devenish's position would have taken with him.

But Captain Devenish did not accompany Mr. Merridew to the little outbuilding in which Denis lay; nor did Jim Doherty, or his master, remain even so long as to see the older man take the bandaged hands, tenderly, tremulously, in both of his.

The interview which followed was an affecting one; but Denis had done too much, too recently, to take a very emotional view of his exploits. In his heart he took little credit for them. It was not he who had saved Nan Merridew's life, but a merciful God who had merely used him as His tool; and while, perhaps, more thankful than he now knew for that supreme preferment, the prostrate man was almost morbidly alive to its disadvantages. Thus, when Mr. Merridew led the conversation back almost to the point at which their last had been interrupted, it was Denis who created the awkward silence. He was touched by the uncontrolled revelation of a hard man's soft side, by the contrast between the exceedingly deliberate and rather irritating voice that he remembered on the poop, and the voice that still broke with very tenderness. But his own voice was so much the more dispassionate, and apparently perverse.

"I unsay every word," said Mr. Merridew, for the second time, and more pointedly than ever; for, even in his really generous emotion, he could not help feeling that it was unsaying a great deal.

Denis nodded from his pillow, but only to signify that he heard. "You are very kind," he answered at length, with no ironic intent; "too kind, I almost think. You might live to regret it."

"No, no; never, never! Now I know what you are."

"I am a junior officer in the merchant service – with a captain's certificate."

Mr. Merridew was genuinely pained. "Dent," said he, "I take back my words twice over, and still you throw them in my teeth! Surely you must see that everything is altered now?"

"But it might have happened to anybody else," urged Denis, with gentle tenacity. "You should look at it in that way, Mr. Merridew. Suppose it had been one of the stewards; for all you knew, or seemed prepared to believe, I was no more eligible than they, the night before last. I have been infinitely lucky – no, blessed, blessed! – but that's all. It doesn't give me ten thousand pounds to put to hers."



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