Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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CHAPTER XI
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

The firm of Dent, Moseley, and Doherty, gold-diggers, was formally established next day, in a clump of trees a few miles out of Melbourne. Denis had experienced no difficulty in obtaining his paltry dues from the shipping agents, but even so he and Doherty could not muster twenty pounds between them. Moseley, on the other hand, was for putting in nearly double this amount, and yet only receiving his one-third of the profits. He argued that but for the others he would have had nothing to put in at all. It was long before Denis would listen to him, and Doherty took no part in the discussion. But eventually a compromise was agreed upon, and thus entered by Denis in a new pocketbook purchased for the nonce: —



This pocketbook, with its blue-lined sheaf of glorious possibilities, represented Denis's one disbursement in Melbourne beyond bed, board, and the glasses of beer overnight. A rigid economy was his watchword; they must walk to Ballarat; so let their packs be light, and if kits were dearer on the diggings, they would still have saved.

Doherty agreed with every word; but as they resumed their journey, and Moseley fell a few paces behind, he reminded Denis of the nuggets which Bullocky had forced upon them at the inn.

"I said we'd keep them for luck," replied Denis; "but, of course, I could only speak for myself; you must do what you like with yours."

"I do what you do," said the boy.

"And you both do well!" added Moseley, catching them up. "I'm all in favour of a fetish; that's what I never had on Bendigo. But nuggets – decoy nuggets – set a nugget to catch a nugget, eh? That's a fetish and a half! I suppose they're only little bits of things? Do you mind letting me see them?"

When he did see them, he changed his tune.

"Good heavens! But these must be over a pound between them, if not getting on for three figures in the other kind of pounds; do you mean to say you had these given you? I say, I'm not sure that my affection for a fetish would hold out against one of these."

"Well, mine will," said Denis, smiling with set teeth. "I don't turn presents into money, Moseley, till the devil drives!"

"But who on earth made you such presents as these?"

"Oh, a rough diamond with a beard to his middle, and a voice like a bull, who did his best to stand on his head in a bucket of champagne."

"By Jove! I believe it must have been old Bullocky himself."

"It was. Do you know him?"

"Know him? No one was ever yet on Bendigo without knowing old Bullocky; he's cock of the walk in Ironbark Gully, finds gold every time, by a sort of second sight, as some of these chaps find water. Why, the first time I ever saw him he was sitting picking nuggets out of a lump of earth like plums from a pudding!"

And Moseley beguiled a mile or more with tales of the great gorilla; he had, indeed, a very passable gift of anecdote, and an easy, idle, fanciful wit which made up in rarer qualities what it lacked in brilliance and virility.

He had not a foul or an unkind word in his vocabulary; and Denis had been too long at sea to undervalue either merit. Moseley was not only a gentleman, but a man of refinement and no little charm, whose companionship might well be prized by such another at that wild end of the earth. And yet Denis forgot to listen as one entertaining tale led light-heartedly to another, for it was only the humours of the life that Moseley seemed to have absorbed.

"But I might as well save my breath," said Moseley, with more truth than he supposed. "It's bound to be the same on Ballarat, only more of it; the one thing I can promise you is plenty of compensation if the fetish doesn't do his duty."

Denis smiled without replying. "I suppose you don't know what sort of soil it is at Ballarat?" he asked at length.

"At Ballarat?" cried Moseley, greatly amused. "Why, my dear fellow, I couldn't tell you what sort it was at Bendigo!"

"But you were digging there five months."

"Digging, exactly; not studying the soil."

"They seemed to you to find it anywhere, did they?"

"Anywhere and everywhere, my dear fellow! Are you a geologist, Dent?" The question came after a pause.

"Not as yet," said Denis; and Doherty, who had no notion what a geologist was, glanced at him sidelong as at one who could soon be it or anything else he chose.

So the time passed, and the miles were mounting up when Moseley, who ought to have known the way to a certain point, found that he had overshot it by as many miles again. It was a trying moment for the height and heat of the afternoon; but so savage was the mild Moseley with himself, so unusually animated with his contrition, that Denis slapped him on the back, and they turned back laughing to an inn where they had drunk beer a couple of hours before. This beer-drinking was an extravagance resented by Denis, yet not a point on which he cared to oppose the man who had contributed so freely to the common fund. Nothing could have been more wholesome for active young fellows, but their beer alone cost them eight and threepence the first day, bread three and six, billy-can two and six, tea and sugar two and six, and their beds at this inn six shillings. One pound two and nine-pence for the first nine miles.

Denis did not grumble, but in his heart he resented the beds almost as much as the beer; there was more to be said for them, however, especially in a country teeming with desperate characters; and the beds at least were cheap, few travelers breaking their journey so near its beginning or its end. Denis, however, sat late in the bar, listening to the conversation of all and sundry who stopped to drink, and learning much in an unobtrusive way: he had never in his life been quite such a Dent, so canny, so calculating, and so cool. As a first step toward the accomplishment of his great resolve, he had already overcome the romantic spirit of its inception; thus the next night, at Bacchus Marsh, he thought nothing of foregathering with an odious little man, who consulted Denis as to the best place to get a "white 'igh 'at and a diamond ring" immediately on landing in London, but who gave him much valuable information in return. And the night after that, when they were fifty miles from Melbourne, there was a landlord with gold-dust sticking to the palms of his hands, who only needed plying with his own liquor to talk by the hour. By this time Moseley was keeping them all back with a sore heel; and the nearer the diggings, the greater each day's expenses; but Denis no longer grudged the money, for he was gaining much that money could not buy.

Often they were overtaken and left behind by more dashing adventurers, aggressively mounted and armed, and what was more galling, once or twice by swifter pedestrians than themselves; but Moseley preferred hobbling with his companions to boarding the scarlet coach which passed them, pitching like a ship on its leather springs. The partners met with no moving accident on the road. Rumours of bushrangers were never followed by their appearance. It was not the less delightful to meet the Ballarat gold-escort coming down, in its sparkling cordon of sabres and lace, for it made the braver show in those sombre wilds, and left a reassuring sense of law and order in its yellow wake.

The fourth night they camped out but ten miles from the diggings, where they hoped to arrive by noon next day; but the blister on Moseley's heel broke and bled, and though either Denis or Jim carried his pack thereafter, while the other gave him an arm, the last and most exciting stage of their journey was also the slowest. The deep-cut bullock-track led them all morning by open flat and shallow gully, between low hills timbered like an English park; from noon on, as the track converged with others, the party received more than one cheery invitation to drain a pannikin of tea at wayside encampments; but even the lame man would not stop again, and the light in his eyes was as bright as any. The three drew close together as they walked. It was as though each made it a point of honour neither to lead by an inch nor to keep the others back; it was also as though all three had lost their tongues and found new eyes, for the gold-light was in them all.

"Hush!" exclaimed Denis, stopping suddenly.

A deep though distant hum came to their ears, faintly at first, but in a steady boom as they stooped and listened without a breath between them.

"It's like the streets of London, from the docks, after a voyage," whispered Denis, raising a puzzled face a little.

"It's a creek," said Doherty. "I never knew they had a creek like that."

"Nor I."

And as one man they turned to Moseley, to stand upright on the spot; for so he was standing, and grinning at them both from ear to ear.

"That's not traffic, nor yet a creek," said he. "It was the same when you got near Bendigo. It's the gold in the cradles. It's the gold!"

The broad brown track rose before them, scored by a myriad wheels, backed by hard blue sky. In an instant they were racing skyward between the ruts. Jimmy had given a whoop, and Moseley his light-hearted laugh, but Denis led without a word until the deep hum had risen to a rumble. Then he looked round, and Jimmy passed him with a yell. Moseley was running very lame. Denis waited for him.

"Jump on my back!" said he. "I won't leave you, and I can't wait."

"You certainly can't carry me."

"We'll see."

"Then you sha'n't."

"Come on!"

And Denis was soon staggering in Doherty's steps, a lean shin protruding from the crook of either arm, a good ten stone upon his back. As he stumbled on, in the last hundred yards, the rumble resolved itself into the roar of ten thousand cradles rocking as one. And on the hill's crest Doherty stood waving his wideawake against the blue.

Denis reeled up to him, breathing hard, with Moseley still protesting on his back. But for the next few minutes it might have been a bronze group that crowned the hill.

Under their eyes, in a single smooth green basin of the sere and wooded ranges, were the tents and earthworks of all nations, joined for once in unnatural war upon the earth that bore them. White were the tents of that unparalleled encampment, gleaming coolly in the sun, and pitched in patches like the scent from a paper-chase; and for every tent there was a red-lipped shaft, with men like ants crawling out and in, and muddy pools here and there between the heaps, with more ants busy at their brim. Here a few cradles rocked, like great square-toed shoes; but they blackened either bank of the yellow stream that picked its way between the tents and the ant-heaps of gravel and of clay; and thence the noise, as of a giant foundry, which could be heard a mile away. The squeak of a windlass was a variation at closer quarters; the deeper claims were thus distinguished; the deepest of all had windsails, too, that rose from the earth like tall ghosts, with lantern jaws and arms like fins.

"Anything like Bendigo?" whispered Doherty to the seasoned digger, who was standing between the other two.

"More compact," replied Moseley. "And not half the trees."

"This must be Black Hill Flat, this open ground on our right," said Denis. "And that should be Bakery Hill over there on the left."

His tone made the others look from the landmarks indicated to Denis himself; and he was consulting a dirty bit of cardboard.

"What have you got there?" asked Moseley, edging up to him.

"A map, a map!" cried Jimmy, who had run round to his other side.

"Where on earth did you get hold of that, Dent?"

"Aha!" chuckled Denis. "I suppose you don't remember the man I told you about at Bacchus Marsh, who wanted the white hat and the diamond ring? He gave it to me, and I'd rather have it than the fifty pounds he said he'd give for his ring! I make that the Gravel Pits right ahead across the stream; you can see the sun on the pools of water; they say it's the wettest bit on the diggings. And you see the trim tent to the right on the green mound? That's Commissioner's Flat, where we shall go first thing on Monday morning for our licenses."

"You've been here before," said Moseley, with an amused shake of the head. "You were here last voyage – don't tell me!"

"My last voyage was to Calcutta," said Denis, laughing as they walked on; "but if you like I was here most nights on the way up, more especially the one we spent at Bacchus Marsh."

The first pair of diggers actually at work in their hole thrilled Denis none the less, and it was he who led the way to have a better look at them. They were quite close to the road on Black Hill Flat, which was an attractive part for new hands, with fewer claims and more trees than there seemed to be further on. These men's tent stood out of the grass like a roof in a flood; and beyond the tent a red night-cap bobbed above ground, as one man plied the pick while the other leaned on the shovel awaiting his turn. The new chums halted at a respectful distance, but the man with the shovel made them welcome with a friendly oath, and chatted good-humouredly in the Tyneside tongue as they all stood looking down into the hole.

"You'd bettaw come and peg out alongside of us," he said. "We come from Newcassel, and we're new chums ourselves."

"And why did you choose this place?" asked Denis.

The man with the shovel gave a happy-go-lucky shrug.

"Howt!" said he. "One pudding's as good as anothaw until you eat it;" and Moseley added, "Quite true," with an experienced nod.

"But we'd gotten a good account o' 't," put in the man with the red night-cap, burying his pick in the upper earth, and scrambling out of the hole with its aid. "The wash-dirt's close to top, an' dry as a slag-heap; what's more, a parcel of Frenchmen have made their fortunes here this very year; an' it's a queer thing if we can't do as well as them beggaws."

The man with the shovel was now doing his part below ground with great vigour. Shovelfuls of a hard conglomerate of quartz, ironstone, sand and clay, were flying in all directions. As the newcomers withdrew, Moseley took Denis by the arm.

"We might find a worse place to camp: what do you say to that gum-tree further on toward the hill? I tell you what – I'll borrow an axe from these chaps, and cut fire-wood and tent-poles if you two will go for some rations and a dozen yards of canvas. It'll be dark in another hour; don't be much longer, and you'll find a fire on, and everything ready for pitching the tent."

"We don't want to settle on the first place we come to," said Denis, between dubiety and a natural attraction to the spot.

"Or anywhere else, in a hurry," agreed Moseley; "but we've got to spend the night somewhere, and a quiet Sunday while we look about us; and for that I don't think you could do better."

So the site of their first encampment came to be selected; it was marked by a solitary and rather stately blue gum-tree, of which Denis took due note as Doherty and he regained the track.

CHAPTER XII
EL DORADO

On the road they fell in with a long-legged digger, in the muddy remnants of a well-cut pair of trousers, which telescoped into top-boots of a more enduring excellence; the man was further distinguished by a certain negligent finesse of beard and moustache, a very quiet blue eye, and a voice as quiet when he stopped in his stroll to address the pair.

"Surfacing, I suppose?" said he, with a slight but sufficient indication of the Tynesiders' claim.

"I beg your pardon?" said Denis, out of his depth at once.

"I ought to beg yours," the tall man responded, opening his blue eyes a little wider, and regarding Denis with quiet interest. "I merely saw you come away from that claim over there, and I take rather an interest in Black Hill Flat. That is it, you know."

Denis nodded.

"You aren't a new chum, then?" the other added, smiling over the term.

"Oh, yes, I am. This is our first sight of the diggings."

"Then it's no use asking you a technical question; but surfacing, of course, means going no deeper than the surface – some ten or twenty feet, don't you know. Very few do go deeper, and I am not sure that it would pay on this flat."

Denis explained that the Tynesiders had only got about five feet down.

"So many of them give it up at that," said the tall man, with a faint smile, and would have gone on with the least little nod; but Denis quickly asked him how deep he would go himself and what he thought of Black Hill Flat.

"I'm a deep-sinker," was the reply; "but if I wasn't, and was one of a party, there's nowhere I would sooner try my luck than over there. The drawback is than you can't go very near the water, because the lead doesn't; so you have a long way to carry your wash-dirt, and it wants three or four to keep the pot boiling. On the other hand that's what keeps off the average digger, who's the most impatient person in the world, and so you have the place more or less to yourself. Still, of course, the fewer there are to seek the longer they will take to find, unless some one is very fortunate. A lucky man, though," said the tall digger, looking back toward the Tynesiders' camp – "a lucky man with two hard-working mates might make his fortune there as soon as anywhere."

"Didn't some Frenchmen?" asked Denis, remembering what he had heard at the claim.

"Ah, that was on the hill, and quartz; how they crushed it I can't conceive; for the ordinary man it would be more ruinous than deep sinking, which is saying a great deal."

The tall digger was turning away again, with rather more of a smile, but Denis's eager face detained him a little longer.

"Then which do you recommend," asked Denis, "surfacing or deep-sinking?"

"Oh, come," laughed the other, "I'll be shot if I recommend either! It depends on yourself and your resources. One's quick and cheap and easy, but nearly all a matter of luck; the other's far slower and more expensive, but also far surer for a man of intelligence, as I can see you are. If you go in for surfacing, you might give Black Hill Flat a trial; but I shouldn't tackle it less than three strong."

And with a last good-humoured and yet distant nod, a mixture of courtesy and condescension alike inbred, the tall man went his way, as it might have been down Pall Mall – at the same pace, and with the same carriage – in his deplorable trousers and his long-suffering top-boots.

"I wonder who he is," said Doherty, on whom the still blue eyes had not rested for a moment.

"I wonder where he is," returned Denis, "and how much good he's doing there." Nor would he discuss the man, with Doherty, as a man at all, but only as the most superior digger thus far within their ken. It was nevertheless a new type to Denis; he did not belong to it himself, neither did Moseley, nor yet Ralph Devenish with all his airs. But it was as a digger of transparent parts that the tall man returned to a mind from which the general impression soon blotted the particular.

The general impression on the banks of the Yarrowee was a strident chaos in extreme tints. The rocking of the countless cradles made a distracting chorus at close quarters. The vividness of the picture helped to daze a newcomer. The sky was bright blue overhead; the mud on all sides was the very brightest mud; the tiny patches of green were as bright as emeralds. Grass and mud sparkled with a rank dew of empty bottles. Nearly everything was wet and glistening in the level sunlight. The hairy miners shone with their own moisture and their own sunshine of enthusiasm, for the gold-light lit up every face. Nor was it an ignoble face as Denis saw it over and over again. It was full of the hearty virile hope that expanded his own soul. And it was every vivid tint of red and brown, as the mud was every bright shade of brown and yellow; and to each red face there was a redder shirt, and to every red shirt a pair of moleskin trousers, often snow-white, never the less picturesque for the clots of splendid mud that plastered and spattered it. For to Denis the mud was gold at first sight, molten gold that should have nipped off his foot when he sank ankle deep in it, as it was liquid gold that wound in and out among the tents, and was seen piecemeal through the strings of moleskin legs and rocking cradles, between the banks of the Yarrowee.

The famous cradle really was like a great wooden boot on rockers; the ankle was a raised and perforated tray into which they threw a bucketful of earth and then a balerful of water; the foot was a trough which received the muddy fluid and its precious sediment. As Denis watched the operation for the first time, he imagined the gold-dust pouring through the perforations like pepper from a caster; yet all that was ultimately taken out of the toe of the cradle, and good-naturedly thrust under the new chums' noses in the hollow of a horny palm, would have been a small helping of salt. Denis could have taken his hat off to it, nevertheless, and in another moment Doherty did throw his into the air.

"Not a bad tub," the digger had informed them. "Very near an ounce, I'll wager, or four good quid while you've been watching."



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