Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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"Think, think!" he urged. "Think what it would be for me to go home in this ship and marry you as I am, on my poor captain's certificate and nothing else; and then, only think, if I followed in a few months with a few thousand of my own behind me! You may say I ought to have thought of this before. But I did. I told your father so a few minutes before the wreck. I wanted you to wait for me – I was selfish enough for that from the beginning!"

The disparaging epithet pricked Nan to interrupt him and take it on herself. But Denis persisted without a smile.

"Darling, I am selfish about it still; for if I am not worth waiting for, I am not worth having; but if you can wait only a few months – not a day more than a year – I will come to you as I should come if it is to be – but come I will, rich or poor, if I am alive! Nan, darling, I have everything to gain, only these few months to lose; but I will gain all the world in them. I will, I will, I will!"

She could not but be infected with his confidence, his enthusiasm, and his ideal. There in the dusk were the eager Irish eyes glistening and burning into hers, but there also was the strong north-country jaw set for success as the needle to the pole. And yet – and yet – she was weeping on his shoulder as the purple turned to deepest blue.

"I could have helped you, dearest," came her broken whispers. "But no, not here. It's an awful country. It will break my heart to think of you in it. I thought, if you loved me … after all we have been through … you would never, never leave me again! But, dearest, I do believe in you, and I will wait, for you know best."

So after all it was a brave face, bright as her will could make it, though still wet with tears, that she held away from him, for Denis to look upon it for the first time as his own. But it was a very terrible face that hovered over the same spot but a minute later, when Ralph Devenish came crashing through the young pines to curse the very ground where they had stood, and the sea that had not swallowed one or both.

CHAPTER VIII
COLD WATER

The Merridews sailed for England about the middle of October. They had been less than a fortnight on dry land; and it was with a heavy and uneasy heart that Denis watched their new vessel to a speck from the highest point commanding Corio Bay.

With all his candour, there were one or two things that he could not hide from himself, but that he had hidden from the girl to whom he was now engaged. He was a very young man. He loved adventure for its own sake, and though he had been through much, he felt to the very bone that he was only on the threshold of an exciting and successful career. There could scarcely have been a more sanguine temperament, or a character with more right to one. But the young man's confidence in himself was neither blind nor overweening, and in his heart he was under no illusion as to his own motives. It grieved his soul to see the ship sailing away with all he loved on earth, yet he knew how bitterly he would have felt sailing in her, with never a sight of Bendigo or of Ballarat.

Then he was inordinately independent. It was in the blood. He must make his own way. And here he was frank, yet not so frank as to tell his Nan that her father had definitely offered to put him in a position to make his way quietly at home; and the father was not so incontinent.

A little incident had contributed to Denis's depression; and he was not one to make much of little incidents. But the first person he had encountered on the Memnon, when he had gone on board to see the last of them, was another survivor of the North Foreland– a diseased being named Jewson, who had shipped in her as chief steward, only to be disrated for an incompetent sot before the voyage was a month old. The disrating had been largely due to the second officer, who did not hesitate to ask the fellow in what capacity he saw him now.

"Captain Devenish's servant," was the answer, with a grin that maddened Denis, but it was the fact that rankled. He had said no more. It was too late; and the man had been saved, he deserved a fresh start; but that Devenish, of all people, should give him one, in that vessel of all vessels! It was a sign of more than Denis had time to realize until Corio Bay lay blue and bare at his feet, and the tiny sail on the horizon had vanished forever from his view.

He sat in the sun with his face hidden in his hands. His heart had filled with prayer, his eyes with tears; he dug his knuckles into them, and missed the bloodstone signet-ring that he had worn since his father's death. There had been no time for an engagement ring, but Nan was to wear this one until they met again. And she had given him one of hers – a ruby, a diamond, and a sapphire – that jammed in the middle of his little finger nail; but he was to wear it day and night about his neck instead, on a tiny lanyard that she had plaited for it out of her own warm hair. Denis could not trust himself to look at it yet; he could only press the ring to his heart until it hurt, as holy sinners press the scapular, but that was enough to nerve him. He could even smile as he remembered the absurd injunction which had accompanied this sweet talisman. Still smiling he looked down again through the sunshine upon the empty bay; but now the first thing Denis saw was a separate shadow on the grass.

"Cheer up, mister! All board! It's getting on for fifty knots to Melbourne, and the Lord knows how many bells!"

Jimmy Doherty was standing over him, and his dark skin beamed as he rolled the nautical phrases on his tongue. Denis got up without a smile.

"Don't remind me of the sea, Jimmy; help me to forget about it. And as for Melbourne, we shall never see it to-night."

"Sha'n't we though!"

"What! Fifty miles between midday and midnight?"

"It's not so much, and I've got us a lift half-way."

"But we can't afford that, Jimmy."

A shifty grin from Doherty betrayed a sort of guilty pride in his arrangements.

"I've got it for love, mister, from a hawker as only wishes he was a-goin' all the way, for the honour and glory o' carryin' a gent that's done what you've done and got himself in all the papers."

Denis was divided between natural satisfaction and annoyance.

"Very well, Jimmy, and I congratulate you; but, once and for all, never another word about that unless you're asked! We're mates now, remember; I might as well brag of it myself. Besides – but it's a bargain, isn't it?"

Mr. Doherty said he supposed it must be; but for once his spirit was under a cloud, for he had appointed himself sole minstrel of his hero's praises, foreseeing both honour and profit in the employment; but on reflection the embargo only made him think the more of Denis, and his first care was to whisper it in the hawker's ear.

The hawker was waiting with his wagon outside an inn in Moorabool Street, and Denis was relieved to find the man less palpably impressed by his exploit than Jimmy had represented him. He was a little flint of a fellow, sharp but surly, who accepted an eight-penny glass of porter with a nod and drained it without removing his eyes from the sailor's face. But in a mile or so his tongue loosened, as the trio sat abreast under the wagon's hood, and the scattered buildings of the budding town melted into the unbroken timber of the bush track.

"So you're bound for the diggings, are you?" said the hawker. "And what may you think of doing when you get there?"

"Well," said Denis, to enter into the man's humour, "we did think we might dig."

"Oh, dig!" said the hawker, and relapsed at once into his former taciturnity.

"What would you do, then?" inquired Denis, nudging Doherty, who, though he had plenty to say when they were alone, was a respectful listener before a third person.

"Bake!" said the hawker, without a moment's hesitation.

"Bake?" echoed Denis in amused dismay.

"It's four-and-six the half-loaf at this moment," said the hawker. "Same price as a quarter of sheep. On the diggings, that is. Yes, sir, I'd bake, that's what I'd do, if I had my time over again, and capital enough to make a start."

"And if you hadn't enough?"

"If I hadn't enough, and if they were full-handed in all the publics, and I couldn't get a job in any o' the stores, and the Commissioner wouldn't give me one, and if I could borrow a license, beg some tools, and steal enough to eat, well, I might have another dig myself. But not till I'd tried everything else. You've heard what they got in Canadian Gully, I suppose?"

"I have," said Denis.

"So had I," said the hawker.

"And what did you get?"

"Not enough to eat bread on; not one in a thousand does. But you go and have your try. You may have a bit of luck in the end, and manage to bring your bones away with the flesh on 'em, like me. That's the most I can wish you, and it's hoping for the best. But you take my advice, and when the luck turns, never wait for it to turn again. You get rid of your claim for what it'll fetch; mine fetched what you see – a hawker's wagon, horses, and whole stock-in-trade. I just jumped in and drove away, and he jumped into my claim. And I will say I'm doing better at this game than I was at that."

"And how is he doing?"

"I don't know," said the hawker, "and I don't care."

"Prices must be good," remarked Denis.

"Among the middlings," said the hawker with a sidelong glance at Doherty, who, however, was looking the other way. "I can let you have a nice pair o' boots for a five-pound-note, and a spare shirt like what you've got on for thirty bob. But it's not what it was when I came out last year. I wouldn't come into the hawking business if I were you; you could get twenty-five bob a day as a carpenter, and three-pound-ten to four pound a week at bullock-driving. But I'd rather be a labourer on the roads, with two crown certain a day, and wood, water, and tent supplied, than peg out another claim."

Denis had heard enough. He was not easily discouraged, but he found it a relief to turn his attention to the scenery. They were intersecting a forest of rather stunted trees, all blown one way by the wind, which made music of a peculiar melancholy among their branches. Doherty said the trees were she-oaks, answering Denis's question with great zeal. Similarly Denis learned the names of the various parrots that perched by the flock amid the dull green foliage, or fled from tree to tree with a whirr and a glint of every colour in the rainbow. Then a pond must be called a water-hole, it seemed – a beck a creek, and the curly-bearded aboriginals blacks or blackfellows – but not niggers. It was the earliest and most elementary stage of Denis's colonial training, and he would have relished it if only for his mentor's intense satisfaction in his task, to say nothing of a capacity to teach not inferior to the will. But the hawker had a last word left, which he kept, as though by demoniac design, for one of their glimpses, depressing enough to Denis as it was, of the sparkling sea never many miles distant on their right.

"Ah!" said the hawker, pointing with his whip, "if I'd been one hour earlier in Geelong, I'd have sold lock, stock, barrel an' ammunition for a berth in that ship that cleared out for Old England this forenoon. Ship from Melbourne you can't get. It was a chance in a hundred, and I'd have given all I have for it, as you will for such another before you've seen half as much as me."

It was about three in the afternoon, at a place called Wyndham, that the pair took their leave of this dispassionate pessimist, with as little regret as may be supposed, and found themselves afoot for the last twenty miles. And almost from the first step Doherty was loud in his denunciation of every word the hawker had uttered, not one of which was Denis to believe for an instant. But there was no Denis left to embrace this view; the leave-taking of the morning and the hawker in the afternoon had reduced him between them to unmitigated Dent, a dogged fellow ready for the worst, though more than ever bent upon the best.

"There are two sides to everything, and give me the dark side first," said he; "besides, a lift for nothing is a lift for nothing. But what's that you've got in your pack, Jim?"

"What's what?" asked Doherty, changing colour as he trudged.

"There's a box of some sort showing through your outer blanket."

"Oh, that's my revolver."

"Your revolver! You hadn't one this morning. Who's given it to you?" demanded Denis.

"No one," the boy confessed. "I bought it from the hawker while you were on the ship."

"And how much did you give for this?" asked Denis, as they squatted by the roadside, with a neat oak case open between them, and a great five-chambered Deane and Adams twinkling in the sun.

"Ten guineas, mister."

"Ten guineas! More than half the wages you drew from the station, for a second-hand revolver? He didn't say it was first-hand, did he?"

"No, but he said it was worth more."

Denis sprang impatiently to his feet.

"Well, it may save our lives, and then it will be," said he. "But I like your notion of a lift for love!"

CHAPTER IX
THE CANVAS CITY

The travelers had been variously advised as to their best road to Melbourne from a certain point; but what they did (by pure accident) was to come out on the Williamstown promontory and get a second lift (by sheer luck) in a boat just leaving for the Sandridge side. They were even luckier than they knew. The gain in mileage was very considerable. And there was sun enough still upon the waters for them to see with their own eyes the derelict sail of all nations and of every rig, swinging forlornly with the turning tide, their blistered timbers cracking for some paint, and all hands at the diggings.

But the sun was sinking when the two friends landed at Liardet's Jetty, and came at once by the Sandridge Road to the first thin sprinkling of the tents which formed the Melbourne of those days. The track ran in ruts through sand and dust as fine as tooth-powder; they trudged beside it over scanty grass, with here and there a star-shaped flower without the slightest scent. Gum-trees of many kinds, some with the white bark peeling from their trunks, others smooth and leafless as gigantic bones, made amends with their peculiar aroma. There was a shrill twittering of the most unmusical birds, the croak of bullfrogs from a neighbouring lagoon, a more familiar buzz of flies, a tinfoil rustle of brown grass at every step. Once the grass rustled before Denis's foot came down, and in a second he had stamped the life out of his first snake – a long black fellow with a white waistcoat and pink stripes. Doherty held it up in horror.

"That's not the way to kill a snake," said he. "Jump out of the road if you haven't a stick. It's lucky for you that you came down on his right end, or he'd have been up your leg like a lamplighter, and in a few minutes you'd 'a' been as stiff as him. Poisonous? I believe you, mister! You thank your stars, and don't do it again."

And Denis went on with a cold coating to an active skin, but without a syllable until Doherty drew his attention to a marquee under the trees, with a brass plate stitched to the canvas; and when they got near enough to read the legend it was ESTABLISHMENT FOR YOUNG LADIES, in tremendous capitals; there was even a blackboard nailed to a blue gum, with benches fixed to stumps, and every accessory but the young ladies themselves. Denis was prepared to meet them two-and-two in the next glade, but the multiplication of tents soon put this one out of his head, and their infinite variety became apparent as they drew together into streets. There were canvas cones, canvas polygons, canvas in every figure defined by Euclid and in more that baffle definition. A cricket tent had a publican's sign swinging from an overhanging branch. A red lamp surmounted the nearer of two uprights which carried a pole with a sheet stretched across it; the doctor crawled out of this his surgery, and lit up with a brawny arm, as the travelers passed. Denis thought it still quite light, but when they came to the first bricks and mortar, as it seemed but a few yards further, there was just enough rose in the dusk for good eyes to glean from the notice-board in front of the house that its three rooms and its strip of yard were to let at ?400. And in another minute it was night.

An unpleasant feature of these canvas streets was that slops and refuse were hurled into the middle of them, while cast-off clothing literally lined the sides; but as a light twinkled at one tent, and a fire blazed up outside the next, the picturesque contrasts afforded by the firelit faces, the inconceivable jumble of grades and races, blinded Denis to all else. Now it was a drayman with a single eye-glass, now a gentle face at the wash-tub and a diamond flashing through the suds. The peoples might have been shot by the shovelful from their respective soils; yellow Yankee, gross German, suspicious Spaniard, sunny Italian, burly Dane and murderous Malay, there they all were, so many separate ingredients newly flung into the pot. A noticeable link was the hook-nosed Jew who spoke every language and hailed from every clime. And either there were more Chinamen even than Europeans, or their blue breeches and their beehive hats brought them oftener to the eye. But the usually drunken blackfellow and his invariably degenerate gin were already becoming scarce in their own land.

Denis and Jim drifted with this cosmopolitan crowd across a bridge, into a region of fewer tents, better lights, more weather-board walls, and not a few of bricks and mortar. A veranda where a free fight was raging turned out to be that of the General Post Office; the flag flying over it celebrated the arrival of an English mail, and it was for their letters that the poor folk fought. One shook himself clear with his letter in his hand, and an indescribable look of happiness on his face, as Denis looked on enviously. In an innkeeper's yard hard by, the horses of a bullock-team scratched the panels of a resplendent brougham; and though this was evidently the fashionable quarter, judging by the numbers of regular shops, the gutters were swollen to such rivers that in places drays acted as ferry-boats across them. In some of the shop windows the things were marked Very Dear to tempt the plutocratic plebeian; but in nearly all there was a legend which went to one head at least – the legend of Gold Bought in Any Quantity.

"There must be plenty going after all," said Denis, "or you wouldn't see that at every turn."

Doherty agreed without enthusiasm; it was what he had always held; but the surface excitement of his years was not proof against a ravenous appetite, whereas Denis could have gone on and on without a bite. Yet they were really in search of modest fare, and were actually reconnoitring a large and flaring shanty, which rather chilled the frugal blood in Denis, when a choice harangue was poured into them from the veranda; and there sat a gorilla of a man, his shirt half-hidden by his beard, dipping a pannikin in a bucket between his knees, and spilling the contents as he waved it to the pair.

"Come in, ye cripples!" roared he. "Come and have a pannikin o' champagne with ole Bullocky, or by the hokey you'll be stretched out stiff!"

And with that the true gorilla fell to pelting them with the empty champagne bottles that surrounded him, until Denis cried a truce and led the way in, laughing, under a storm of drunken banter from the successful digger and his friends.

"A new chum, I see!" said Bullocky, rolling an unsteady eye over Denis when he had handed him the pannikin. "Another blessed 'Jack ashore,' by the cut of ye; deserting orf'cer, I shouldn't wonder! All the more reason listen me: none of your damn quarter-deck airs here, you know. There ain't no blessed orf'cers aboard this little craft. We're all in the cuddy or afore the mast – w'ich you please – so you can just sweat all the notions you ever had. And if you don't empty that there pannikin down your own gullet – "

A huge fist finished the sentence with a terrifying shake, as Denis was in the act of handing the tin mug to the open-mouthed Doherty.

"We haven't had our supper yet," he explained. "It's dangerous stuff on empty stomachs."

"Not had your suppers?" thundered Bullocky; a lurch took him to the tap-room door, where he gave the order in a roar. "Now you drink up," he went on, with ferocious hospitality, as another lurch brought him back. "It cost five pounds a bottle, and if it ain't good enough for scum like you, I'll stretch the two of ye stiff till your grub's ready."

And the genial brute bellowed with laughter until the veranda shook, and flinging off a wideawake garnished with an ostrich feather, stuck his great head into the bucket of champagne and drank like his betters of the field. As a result, Denis and Jim had their meal in peace, for it was but lukewarm mutton and sodden duff, and while they ate, one of his friends informed them that "Bullocky" was the short for Bullock Creek, Bendigo, of which the great man was patron sinner, having made several fortunes there that year, and spent them in the way they saw. "Which isn't so bad," added his friend, who did discredit to a better class, "for a gentleman from over the way."



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