Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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Denis asked him what he meant.

"An old hand from Van Diemen's Land," the man answered in a despicable undertone. And Denis felt inclined to tell the old hand, who now returned to crown his hospitality by forcing a nugget apiece upon the two beginners.

"But it must be worth fifty pounds!" exclaimed Denis, in vain protest, as he handled his.

"Fifty smacks in the mouth!" thundered Bullocky preparing to administer them. "You ain't on your dam' quarter-deck now!"

"Very well," said Denis, "we'll keep them for luck, rather than come to blows about it; and we really must thank you – "

"You dare!" interrupted Bullocky, with another flourish of his hairy fist. "It's no more'n wot I'd do for any other scum with all their troubles ahead on 'em. I ain't got no troubles fore nor aft; I'm Lord God o' Bullock Creek, I am, and I ain't done with you yet; you come along o' me."

So saying, he led the way toward certain sounds of revelry which had begun to fill the lulls between his detonations. And in a marquee crowded with diggers, and reeking with the fumes from pipe and pot, the trio were in time for the last lines of a song from a buffoon on the platform at one end:

 
"And when you think it's all serene —
Pop goes the weasel!"
 

It was the latest song from England, and was vociferously encored; but not for the first time, it seemed, and the mountebank would only bow and scrape. In an instant the rank air was yellow with flying orange-peel. But Bullocky handed Jim a nugget to throw for him, which Mr. Doherty discharged with such effect that it hit the performer on one leg and sent him hopping round the stage on the other, until the nature of the projectile was discovered, and the song given yet again. At its close the plutocrat's party were accorded a table in front, and more drink ordered to Denis's embarrassment. "Careful, Jimmy," he contrived to whisper, and received a reassuring kick under the table by way of reply.

A poor painted girl, with a voice that had some little sweetness left, and a pathos all its own, came next with a song just old enough to have associations for some of those who heard. It was, however, a sweet song in itself, and in a few bars a hush had fallen on the audience; even Bullocky sat back in his chair, his huge beard leveled at the singer.

 
"You are going far away, far away from poor Jeannette;
There's no one left to love me now, and you too will forget;
But my heart will be with you wherever you may go —
Can you look me in the face and say the same, Jeannot?
When you wear the jacket red, and the beautiful cockade,
Oh! I fear you will forget all the promises you made.
With a gun upon your shoulder and a bayonet by your side,
You'll be taking some proud lady and be making her your bride —
You'll be taking some proud lady and be making her your bride!"
 

So it ran; and Denis caught himself pressing his dear new amulet to his heart.

He was so saddened that he did not see Bullocky until he heard him roar, "No, he won't, my dear! I'll stretch him stiff and stark if he do!" at which one behind gave a laugh, and so brought that formidable fist within an inch of his nose, while with the other paw the gorilla dashed away a tear that ought to have filled a wineglass. Denis lost half the next verse in watching him. Bullocky was now sprawling across the table, his great face hidden in the hirsute folds of his powerful arms.

 
"Oh! if I were King of France, or still better Pope of Rome,
I'd have no fighting men abroad, no weeping maids at home.
All the world should be at peace, or, if kings must show their might,
Why, let them who make the quarrel be the only ones to fight —
Yes, let them who make the quarrel be the only ones to fight!"
 

Bullocky's shoulders were heaving with vinous sobs. He did not join in the tempest of applause, and before the last verse had been repeated his emotions reached their anti-climax in a sounding snore. Denis gave Doherty a nod, and they deserted under cover of the final furore.

Near the exit of the marquee a degenerate sailor reeled into them; and it shocked Denis slowly to identify the blurred features of his late shipmate, the chief officer of the North Foreland. It was but a week since he had given evidence as clear as it was creditable at the inquest in Mr. Kitto's wool-shed.

"Seen you come in," said the mate. "Thought you was in blue water by this time."

"How so?" asked Denis.

"Homeward bound," hiccoughed the mate.

"I'm not going home yet," said Denis. "I'm going to try my luck on the diggings first."

The chief swayed incredulous. "Thought that was all plain sailin'?" said he. "Thought you was to go home with 'em, an' marry her at t' other end if not at this? Well, well, you might just as well have taken my advice!"

"What advice?" asked Denis, coldly.

"It was just as you was swep' overboard," explained the mate. "You didn't hear it; and if you had it wouldn't've been no use without the boat; but I was goin' to tell you to stand out to sea like I did; and you might as well, don't you see? Drawn your pay at the agent's yet?" he added as Denis was turning away.

"Not yet; that's what I've come for; but I only got here to-night."

"Ah," said the chief, "I have! I wish I was you!" And Denis left him with the tears in his eyes.

Outside the marquee a crowd had collected, and with reason, for in the centre stood a blacksmith with a shod horse whose four hoofs he was displaying in turn; and it was shod with pure gold, which he rubbed with a leather until the horseshoes shone again in the glare of the naked flame that lit the entrance to the booth. Denis knew it must be Bullocky's steed, and they had not to ask a question to gather that it was.

"How about the dark side now?" whispered Doherty, slipping an arm through his hero's as they walked away.

CHAPTER X
THIEVES IN THE NIGHT

Where they were to sleep was now the question. Doherty, who had still some sovereigns in his pocket, was strongly in favour of good beds at any reasonable price; but this did not commend itself to the son of the dales, whose hard head was always less sanguine for the day than for the far event. Dent was to draw his due next day; he was not very certain how much there would be to draw. He had assured Mr. Merridew that he had plenty of money, when he was really at his last gold piece. The squatter, on the other hand, had insisted on giving each adventurer a pair of blankets with his blessing; with these in tight rolls about their shoulders, they had made their march; and Denis now announced his intention of sleeping under a tree in his as soon as he had found the bed for Doherty. Their first quarrel nearly ensued. The boy had to shed a tear before Denis would hear of anything different; and then they had to find their tree.

After a fright from a spurred police cadet with drawn sabre, who threatened the pair with a five-pound fine apiece for attempting their ablutions in the Yarra, back they went across the river to the chartered squalors of Canvas Town; but instead of keeping as before to the main streets of tents, struck off at a tangent for the nearest open country. And this led them through worse places still; now wading knee-deep in baleful filth, and now through its moral equivalent in the most rampant and repulsive form. In these few dark minutes they saw much misery, more selfishness, and very little decency indeed. Jim slipped his hand through Denis's arm with a timidity that spoke volumes in his case; and Denis drew his deepest breath that day when the lights lay all behind them, save a single camp-fire far ahead in the bush.

Dent and Doherty were wandering toward this light, neither actually intending to go so far, nor yet knowing quite how far they would go, when a mild voice hailed them from under just such a tree as should have met their needs.

"I say," it said, "you fellows!"

"Hullo?" cried Denis, stopping in his stride.

"Steady!" returned the voice in an amused undertone. "Mum's the word – if you don't mind coming nearer."

The pair stole up to the tree. A slight young man stood against the trunk in the shaded starlight; it was his voice that conveyed his youth; they could barely see him at arm's length.

"Thanks awfully," he went on. "I have no idea who you are, but I should like awfully to shake hands with you; unfortunately, I haven't a hand at liberty – feel."

What Denis felt was a coil of rope, and another, and another, as he ran his hand up and down.

"Tied up!" he whispered.

"And robbed," added the complacent young man.

"Of much?" asked Denis, getting out his knife.

"Only the result of five months' hard labour on Bendigo; only my little all," the young man murmured with a placid sigh. "But it might be worse: they sometimes truss you up with all your weight on your neck, and then you can't make yourself heard if you try. Isn't there a fire somewhere behind me?"

"A good way off there is."

"It's not so far as you think. I heard them light it. But it would be just as well not to let them hear us."

"Why shouldn't they?" asked Denis, as he worked a flat blade between the young man's middle and the rope; whereupon Doherty put in his first word in an excited whisper.

"Don't you savvy? They're the blokes what done it, mister!"

"Exactly," said the mild young man. "And that's about all I know of them, though I've been in their company all day. But my name is Moseley; you might make a note of it, in case anything happens. My father's Rector of Much Wymondham, in Silly Suffolk – as you might expect from his imbecile son."

"I don't see where the imbecility comes in, much less what can happen now," said Denis, encouragingly; as he spoke, he loosened the severed coil, and the late captive stumbled stiffly into the open.

"I ought to be ashamed to own it," he went on in whispers, squatting in the grass to bend his limbs in turn, "but I met these chaps on the way into town – with my poor little pile, heigho! – and took them for father and son, as they professed to be. I thanked Providence for putting me in such respectable hands, and stuck to them like a leech till they lured me out here to camp with the result you found. As for nothing happening now, they swore they'd murder me if I uttered a sound; they've camped within earshot to be handy for the job; and I give them leave to do it, if I don't get even with them now."

Doherty rubbed his hands in glee; but Denis was quite unprepared for this spirited resolution, voiced as it was in the spiritless tone which distinguished the other young man; and he asked Moseley whether he was armed.

"I should be," was the reply, "but they took my pistol with my pile, confound them."

"Then how on earth do you propose to get even with them?"

"Oh, I may wait till the blackguards are asleep; I shall steal a squint on them presently, and then decide. But don't you fellows bother to stay. I'm awfully obliged to you as it is."

It did not require this generous (and evidently genuine) discharge to retain their services to the death. In Denis the Celt had long been uppermost, and, like Doherty, he was in a glow for the glowing work. Apart from that, Denis was rather fascinated by the rueful humour and the chuckle-headed courage of a temperament at once opposite and congenial to his own.

"Either we stand by you, Moseley," he muttered, "or we all three run for it; and I'll be shot if we do that just yet! Luckily, one of us can supply the firearm, and the other can use it if the worst comes to the worst."

Doherty was already at his pack. The polished oak case shone in the starlight like a tiny tank, until the lid stood open and its contents gave a fitful glitter. Wadded bullets, percussion caps and a powder-horn had baize-lined compartments to themselves; in their midst lay a ponderous engine with a good ten inches of barrel. Denis was some time capping and loading it in all five chambers, while one companion watched with languid interest, and the other in silent throes of triumph.

A minute later they were all three creeping on the fire, like Indian scouts. The two rascals sat over it still. One had his back turned to the advancing enemy; and it was so broad a back that they caught but occasional glimpses of his vis-a-vis, who had a rather remarkable face, pale, shaven, and far more typical of the ecclesiastic than of the footpad.

"That's the dangerous one," whispered Moseley. "The other beggar's twice his age."

"Wait, then," said Denis – "what a hawk he looks! Hadn't we better work right round and take them in his rear?"

"As you like," said Moseley, light-heartedly.

And they had decided on this when quite another decision was rendered imperative by the younger robber suddenly bounding into the air and flinging something from him with an oath. For one cold instant the three imagined they were caught. They had halted unwisely, where there was little cover, some fifty yards from the fire and perhaps a hundred yards from Moseley's tree. It became immediately apparent that there was only one thing to be done.

"Why, it's more than half silver!" the rascal shouted, white with rage. "It's a cursed fake; he's got the rest somewhere else – I'll hack his head off for this!"

A clump of bushes lay nearer the fire than the crouching trio. "Run for them!" whispered Denis, and led the way with his nose between his knees. They reached the cover just in time. The man passed within a yard of them. His mate remained squatting over the fire.

"Now you take this," said Denis, handing Jimmy a length of the cut rope which he had brought with him, "and you this," giving Moseley the Deane and Adams. "Now both follow me – like mice – and do exactly what I tell you."

So they crept up to the fire in the formation of an isosceles triangle.

"Where are you? Where's your tree? If you don't answer I'll carve your head off!" they heard one ruffian threatening with subdued venom in the distance; his voice was at its furthest and faintest when Denis leaped on the other from behind and nipped an enormous neck with all ten fingers.

"I'm not going to choke you, but you'll be shot dead if you make one sound. Here, Moseley, stick it to his ear. You understand, do you? One sound. There, then; now you'll be gagged. Jimmy, the rope."

Denis felt rather sorry for his man as he went to work; he was such an elderly miscreant, so broad and squat (rather than obese), as one who had been pressed like a bale of wool. But he held his peace with stolid jowl until gagged by a double thickness of the rope that soon held him hand and foot.

"Now for your mate," said Denis. As he spoke, the fellow could be heard shouting that their bird was flown; thereupon the three withdrew behind trees. "And remember," said Denis, who went last with the revolver, "if you make a sign to send him back you'll be the first."

They had not a minute to wait. Their second victim came back cursing their first for sitting so unmoved over the fire. Denis peeped and saw the lean, ascetic face advancing white-hot with passion; in the last ten yards he stopped, suspicious, but not yet of the truth, for the untended fire had declined to a mere red and white remnant in his absence.

"Good God, man, are you dead?" he cried, and then came running at the thought. At the same instant Denis stepped from behind his tree.

"Throw up your hands before I fire!"

And up they both went, but one barked and flashed on the way, and the ball whispered in Denis's ear as he took deliberate aim and shot the scoundrel down.

"Take care!" he shouted to the others, rushing up. "I aimed low. He isn't dead. Don't trust him an inch!"

But the man had been drilled through the sciatic nerve, and he leaped where he lay like a landed fish. He had let fall the pistol in his pain, and Moseley had the pleasure of picking up his own.

"Has anybody any brandy?" asked Denis, for the wounded man looked ghastly, writhing in the starlight, and he was bearing his torments without a word; but when Moseley produced a flask, and Denis held it to him, the unbeaten brute only seized the opportunity of snatching at the revolver in his other hand.

"The blackguard!" piped Doherty, as Denis disengaged without a shot. "I'd finish him for that!"

"No, you wouldn't, Jimmy; but if he wants to grin and bear it, why, he's welcome – till they come for him! Come on, Moseley," added Denis, as that placid person characteristically took his time, under the gagged man's nose, over his stolen belongings. But in a few moments the three were off at the double, and in a few more the contents of a third revolver followed them without effect.

"I expected that," said Denis as they ran. "But what a fine villain! Not a word in his pain. Educated man, I should say."

"Mean to put the police on 'em to-night or in the morning?" called Moseley, with languid interest, as he jogged along last.

"Not at all," said Denis.

"Not at all?" panted Doherty.

"We want to get to the diggings, not to cool our heels in this nice place. We've winged one and taught them both a lesson, and wasted quite enough time on such carrion as it is."

They were now in full view of the lights of Canvas Town. Moseley, far behind, petitioned for a more civilized pace in the most strenuous tone the others had yet heard from him. And while they waited Denis returned the revolver to its rightful owner.

"I'm heartily ashamed of myself, Jimmy," said he: "first I blame you for buying the one thing we want more than another, and then I take it from you and use it myself! But the credit's every bit of it yours; but for you those villains would have gone scot-free with this fellow's fortune; but for you he would be a poor man to-night, and he's got to know it. I hope you recovered everything?" added Denis, as Moseley came up with them at his leisure, and all three proceeded toward the lights.

"I don't know," was the reply. "I ought to have thirty-eight pound, twelve and six, but there's over a pound of it in silver, and you didn't give me time to count it."

A few paces were covered in silence; then Denis gave a grim little laugh. "So we've all risked our lives for thirty-eight pounds odd!"

"It was my all," said Moseley, rather hurt. "I never said it was much, and never asked you to risk your lives."

Denis took his arm with a heartier laugh.

"My dear fellow, we weren't going to let you risk yours alone, and I wouldn't undo it if I could. It wasn't a question of amount, either; if you had told us the figure it would have made no difference. But you did say it was your pile, you know, that you were taking back to England!"

"It wasn't much of one, certainly," the other admitted on reflection, with his own ingenuous candour. "I am not so sure, now, that it would have paid my passage home. I never thought of that before. So you two are going up to the diggings, just as I come down?" he added rather wistfully, after a pause.

"We start to-morrow if we can."

"Much capital, may I ask?"

"Not much more than half your pile between us, I'm afraid."

"It needs more capital than you'd think," said Moseley, in a pensive way.

"I dare say."

And Denis sighed.

"Ballarat or Bendigo?"

"I thought of tossing for it."

They were back again on the foul fringe of the sail-cloth suburb. Moseley stood still in the mud. And the bright southern stars discovered a pleasing diffidence in a wholly amiable face.

"Have you really no choice?" he asked.

"Absolutely none."

"Well, then, I hardly know how to put it," stammered Moseley; "but I've some experience, if I haven't much to show for it; and if Ballarat would do for you – I should be sorry to turn up again in Bendigo; I'm afraid I did pretend I'd done a little better there – but Ballarat's really the place, and if you could do with a third – well, there's my poor little pile, it would go into the pool, and – well I don't mind saying I should be proud, after the way you've stood by me to-night."

"So should I!" cried Denis, seizing Moseley's hand. His warm heart was touched. "So would Jimmy," he added, for the lad was standing aloof as he always would when they were three. "It's the natural thing, and your experience will be more valuable than even your money, not that we can take more than your share of that. Come, laddie, and give him your hand on it, too; and then for the best three beds we can afford, and three good glasses of ale to seal the partnership."

Doherty turned to Denis rather quickly when he had shaken the new partner's hand. "You see," he said, "it is a case of beds, after all!"

But his tone was reproachful rather than triumphant, as though Denis might have listened to him before.



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