Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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Some claims were so near the water that the newcomers saw exactly how the labour was divided in parties of three. One man was busy in the hole, digging and filling bucket after bucket; another carried the buckets to and fro, emptying the full one into the tray of the cradle; the third did the rocking and supplied the water. The deeper claims were crowned by a windlass mounted on a framework of logs; and Denis supposed it was a fourth man who stood thereon to raise and lower the buckets. But nothing was more fascinating to watch than the most primitive operation of all, namely the use of the tin wash-pan by certain old diggers who still preferred it to the cradle: there was downright legerdemain in the whirlpool of earth and water that they made in a mere hand-basin, but especially in the way they got rid of both, slop by slop, until only the gold-dust tinkled in the tin.

The pair picked their way between the heaps of mud and gravel known as the Gravel Pits. They walked up to Commissioner's Flat, and saw the Commissioner himself, in his gold-lace cap, seated at a table in his tent, like an ordinary general in the field. On the table were a pair of scales that Denis undertook to trouble before long. "Those are what they weigh it with," he whispered to Doherty; and they watched a happy miner go in with a leathern bag and come out gloating over his receipt. This was the most populous part of the diggings. There was some speaking sight or some striking face at every turn. All the men were bearded like the pard; they might have lost a nugget while they scraped a chin; and the community seemed devoid of women. On one claim, however, a whole family were at work, the father digging, the mother rocking as she nursed her babe, an elder infant toddling with its share of grist, the eldest pouring water into the mill.

As man and boy wandered and looked on, oblivious of their errand, the day's work ended as by a miracle at six o'clock to the minute. Perhaps they had missed some warning shot or signal in their absorption; it certainly was as though a second Big Ben had clanged the hour from which no man might rock a cradle or fill a tub. One minute the cradles roared their loudest; then, a lull that grew into a widespread human hum; and within a quarter of an hour, a thousand crackling fires, each with its wreath of bluish smoke, its steaming pot for the centre of the firelit circle. The bewildered pair had meanwhile set about their business by an effort; and it tided them into a world of yellow and translucent tents, a simple world presently enlivened by blurting cornets, squeaking fiddles, and the ubiquitous concertina.

It was a Saturday night, and the scene was very like a gigantic fair; here was a small, ill-lighted tent, sibilant with the suppressed excitements of sly grog; but here, there, and everywhere were large, well-lighted, over-crowded store-tents, with flags flying honestly against the stars. Yet even in these a Hogarth might have reveled.

Diggers of the stamp of Bullocky pitched bank-notes right and left, nor ever counted the change; or instead of change, lengths of calico or bars of soap were tossed across the counters. Yet Denis had managed at last to get more or less of what was wanted at comparatively reasonable prices. He paid only eighteen pence a yard for thirteen yards of canvas, three shillings for a pound of cheese, tenpence a pound for potatoes, and four-and-sixpence for a hindquarter of mutton. He was struggling out of the tent, holding the meat aloft, with Doherty at his heels, when a cold thrill ran down him. Two other men were struggling in, and the four met so fairly as to block each other's way. One of the newcomers had a grayish beard badly dyed, and little eyes under a peaked cap; the other was smoking a meerschaum pipe with a Turk's face, as unmistakable as his own, yet Denis had to hear him speak before he could believe his eyes.

"Well met, Dent! I suppose I'm about the last person you expected to see here, eh?"

"You are."

"Why, I passed you on the road, man, passed you in the coach, and you never saw us! I changed my mind before the pilot left us; didn't see why you should do all the fortune-making, Dent, my boy; so here I am." And the bold eyes of Ralph Devenish gleamed with a sudden malice that pierced the man's gay crust, while those of his companion seemed smaller, closer, and yet merrier than before.

"Good!" said Denis, looking his cousin steadily in the face. "I hope we may both make our fortunes, Devenish – and then go home together in the same ship!"

CHAPTER XIII
THE ENEMY'S CAMP

Ralph Devenish was the eldest son of doting parents who had done their duty by him according to their lights. They were well-to-do folk, though the homely epithet would have insulted the blood which was their boast; they were not, however, really wealthy, and they had the vast family of their generation. It was therefore something of a sacrifice to send Ralph to his public school, and a distinct one to support his subsequent commission in the Guards. It is true that the sacrifice fell principally upon a long line of younger brethren, who could scarcely have filled the parental eye less if they had stood all their lives in Indian file behind the first-born. But many was the time the father paid some debt with hardly a murmur, or the mother pinched herself to make surreptitious additions to the gay lad's allowance; for man and boy he was the first consideration in their minds, and consequently the sole consideration in his own.

In return this criminal couple had a brilliant and successful son, who was a favourite wherever he went, especially among strangers, and who fraternized to their satisfaction with the more direct issue of families almost as old as their own; the only disappointment was that Ralph was nearing his thirties without having married into one or other of them. It was time, for many reasons, that he made the marriage that was only to be expected of him, and settled down. The marriage that was only to be expected of Ralph Devenish declined in brilliance as the years went on; but the prospect finally resolved itself into no regrettable alliance with a beautiful and charming girl, who was also quite a little heiress in her way. Then Ralph and Nan had known each other all their lives. The families were allied in business. There was nothing in the world against the inferior family, except that invidious juxtaposition. It was therefore a sound choice, if it was nothing more.

Yet Ralph became a company officer without getting engaged even to Nan Merridew. Some said she had refused him. Mr. and Mrs. Devenish could afford to smile. Nevertheless, the attachment became obvious on his side and not on hers. Then Ralph had an illness at Portman Street; it developed into a malignant typhus which nearly killed him; and the shattered officer was given a year's leave in which to recruit from the day he got about again. It seemed certain that this episode would bring matters to a crisis; and when the convalescent was ordered a health voyage in one of the firm's vessels, and Mr. and Miss Merridew accompanied him, it was quite understood that the engagement would be announced on their return.

Nan alone did not so understand it; and in exceptional circumstances already set forth, her father was the next to relinquish an idea which he had cherished as much as anybody. Devenish, however, was naturally no prey to the sentiment to which he attributed his reverse in one quarter and its acceptance in the other. He had never regarded it as a defeat, and he was certainly not the man to do so as he saw the last of Denis against an Australian sky from the Memnon's poop. On the contrary, the gallant Ralph had never been nearly so much in love as with the ardent and disheveled girl, nobly careless of appearances, who wept and waved within a few feet of him until the last.

His tact, however, was not equal to his passion, and it was a breach of tact that sent Ralph Devenish ashore with the pilot.

"Ah, well!" he had said at last. "He has the best of it, after all!"

"What do you mean?" cried Nan, as she turned on him with fiery tears, but not one in her voice.

"He has all the fun of the fair," replied Devenish, lightly. "They say it's the biggest fair ever held on earth."

"You mean the gold-fields, I suppose?"

"Yes. I shouldn't blame him for wanting to have his fling on them."

"I don't understand you," said the girl, very coldly. "Pray who is blaming him?"

"Well, Dent is rather in Mr. Merridew's bad books for insisting on staying out, you know; and I thought he might be in yours, too."

"Did you, indeed! Then let me tell you I am proud of him – for what he has done, and for what he's going to do. But if he were here now, standing in your shoes, though I would give anything to have him here, I should still be ashamed of him in my heart!"

Devenish winced, and his dark, clear skin was stained a deeper shade; as for Nan, she was so heated that every tear had dried upon her angry blushes.

"If you are thinking of me," he said, "you certainly aren't thinking of what you are saying, or you would remember that a year's leave is a year's leave."

"And that yours isn't up till May," she added with ironic levity. "It's no business of mine, of course; only you shouldn't start comparisons between the man who stays and the man who turns back."

"I am also in less need of money," he told her through his teeth.

"Money!" she cried in unrestrained contempt. "I wasn't thinking of the money – I was thinking of the fun and adventure and romance that would have enticed every man worth calling a man, once he had got so far – except you!"

"From their sweethearts even!" he hissed out, with a devilish nod – "from the girls they pretend they want to marry!"

Nan was stung in her turn; and hers was a poisonous sting. The blood drained from her face. It was some moments before she could speak.

"That is their business," she whispered at last. "At all events you know what I should have thought of Denis if he hadn't stayed; but if you want to know what I think of him now, you shall." And with trembling lips, before Ralph, before the man at the wheel, before the officer and the midshipman of the watch, Miss Merridew kissed the bloodstone signet ring upon the third finger of her left hand. That was what happened on the Memnon while Denis watched her dipping out of sight.

What happened next was that Devenish nearly knocked his servant, Jewson, from top to bottom of the companion hatch; the man just managed to clutch the rail, and was called roughly into his master's cabin forthwith.

"Sorry I upset you, Jewson, but you should have got out of my way. You were listening, of course?"

"I couldn't help hearing that last, sir."

"No, I suppose the whole ship heard that. Nice, isn't it?"

"I know what I'd do in your place, sir."

Devenish looked fiercely into the cunning, elderly face, with the dyed beard and the foxy eyes.

"You do, do you?"

"I do, sir; but don't look at me like that, Captain Devenish, sir, or I shall never dare to tell you. There's something else I'd as lief tell you first; but how can I when you look like giving me a horse-whipping if I so much as open my mouth?"

"Go on, you old humbug," said Ralph, relaxing a little; "give me some brandy and water, and let's have it."

Jewson gave him the brandy and water first. Ralph took a gulp, and nodded for the news.

"Well, sir, you see what he give her; but do you know what she give him?" asked Jewson, in a vile undertone, half-gloating, half-afraid.

"No. What?"

"Another ring."

"He's not wearing it."

"That's just it; he is, round his neck. And what do you suppose he's wearing it on?"

"Out with it."

"It's one of her own rings," said Jewson, bringing his small eyes so close together that they seemed to touch. "And he's wearing it round his neck on a lanyard she made him out of her own hair!"

Ralph's comment did him some credit.

"You brute!" he said at last.

"Captain Devenish, sir, it's the four gospels."

"But you've been listening to them too."

"I couldn't help it, sir; really I couldn't. She only give it 'im to-day when he come aboard to bid good-bye. They went into the after saloon, and I was only in here with the door open. I couldn't help hearing every word."

And the wretch displayed his obvious longing, with the cunning light in the little eyes and the grin amid the dyed hair on the wizened face; but with all his faults Ralph Devenish was still something of a gentleman, and, Nan notwithstanding, even more of a man.

"You will never dare to repeat one of them," said he. "If you ever do, and I hear of it, you will get what you yourself suggested just now. That'll do, Jewson; not another word about that."

The old steward accepted his rebuff with aplomb.

"Very well, sir. Of course my feelings ain't like a gentleman's; a gentleman wouldn't expect it. But this I do promise, never to tell anybody if I don't tell you. And now, sir, I should like to tell you, if I may make so bold, what I'd do in your place."

"If it amuses you, by all means."

"It does, sir; but it'd amuse me more if you'd do it, and there's time enough still. I'd take Miss Merridew at her word, and ashore I'd go with the pilot, and to Ballarat by the first coach!"

Ralph sipped his brandy on the settee. It was finished before he spoke.

"I should never make my fortune there," he said.

"You might if you took me with you. I was in Californy in 'forty-nine. And I'd cook for ye," added the steward, his face shining with its least evil light; "I'd cook as not many can in Australia, let alone the diggings. That's what I used to ship as; but it's heart-breaking work at sea."

"If I did make my pile," added Ralph, shrewdly, "it wouldn't alter matters one way or the other."

"Perhaps not. But you'd be able to see whether he made his!"

That was all Jewson said; that was all Devenish heard. But the words were spoken with so subtle an intonation that the tantalizing prospect held out sounded the most solid satisfaction in the world; and they turned the scale. Captain Devenish's portmanteaux were not even unstrapped; within a few hours he had bag and baggage aboard the pilot's cutter, with Nan's last ironic wishes ringing unkindly in his ears, and the chief steward of the North Foreland, whom the second mate had been instrumental in disrating, at his elbow. The next day but one they passed Denis and his companions on the Ballarat Road, and had pegged out a claim in the palpitating heart of the Gravel Pits before the week was out.

The encounter in the crowded tent was not a solitary experience of the kind in Ralph's case; being a public-school boy, he had not been an hour on the diggings before he recognized an old schoolfellow. It was, indeed, the old schoolfellow who first recognized Ralph Devenish; but that was not Ralph's fault. Nigger Rackham was the very fellow whom his old friends would have expected to find up to the bare neck in wash-dirt, but perhaps the last whom they would have looked for in spruce uniform at the head of a jingling mob of mounted troopers. He came of an old West Indian stock, thickly tinctured with native blood, and had been expelled from school for a hearty, natural blackguard who was only good at games. His present employment suggested extensive reformation, but that impression was soon removed over a bottle of brandy in Rackham's tent, and the pair cracked another in Ralph's on the Saturday night.

"You ought to join us," says Rackham. "Talk of me being out of my element! I'm more in mine than ever you'll be in yours as a licensed miner. You've neither the turn nor the patience, as I remember you; and what do you want with a few extra thousand, which is all you'll make with the luck of the devil?"

"They will come in very useful when I get back to town. You breathe money in the Guards, Nigger."

"But you won't make enough to feel the difference. I know you won't. You're not the sort. Whereas, if you were to join us, I could promise you the best sport on earth, better than fox-hunting, and plenty of it."

"What's that, Nigger?"

"Digger-hunting!" says Rackham, his white teeth gleaming in a grin, his bright eyes brighter than ever in his cups. "You look upset: we won't hunt you; but you want to be one of them, and I want you to be one of us."

"But how and why do you hunt them, Nigger?"

"To see their licenses; half of them don't take a license out; you did, because your man knows the ropes. But of course I wouldn't have let an old chum get into trouble."

"But what trouble can it get you into?"

"If you're caught digging without a license on you, whether you have it elsewhere or no," said Rackham, with a gleam and a glitter from his negroid teeth and eyes, "you may get run down and run in, and shut up in the Logs till all's blue. The Logs is the camp lock-up. You sha'n't see the inside of 'em – unless you want, out of curiosity – but that's what happens to the ordinary digger-devil. I've had a fine fellow chained up to a tree all night for his cheek. I rather like 'em like that. But when they don't go to ground in their claims, and break for the bush with you after them, boot and saddle, spurs and sabre, then you know what hunting is!"

"It seems a bit unfair," said Devenish, blowing a reflective cloud from the Turk's head.

"Unfair as you like," says Rackham under his breath, "but the best fun going! I'd rather put up one well-nourished digger than all the foxes in Leicestershire; but there you are, and now you know, not that it applies to you; only, if you should happen to make any enemies (and they're a precious rough crowd to do with), you pass the word and I'll do the rest for the sake of old times."

Devenish coloured a little, and looked to see whether Jewson was within earshot outside the tent; and he was; but just then a diversion was caused by a pistol-shot in the distance, then another, and then so many more, both far and near, that it was as though battle and murder were taking place on no small scale.

"You'd better empty yours, too," said Rackham, pointing to Ralph's revolver in answer to his look. "Some do it most nights, but every mother's son does it on Saturday night, to load up again and start the week with fresh powder and shot. Now's your time, old fellow, while the night's young and your hand steady; then fill up my can, for to-morrow's the Day of Rest!"

The brandy had been obtained at a sovereign the bottle from one of the numerous sly-grog tents at which a digger-hunting constabulary was delighted to wink. But neither Devenish nor Rackham was a drunkard; they were merely congenial and convivial spirits whose incongruous environment promoted a mutual warmth. And the guardsman's contribution to the common fusillade, which still continued, was heard with the rest not a mile away, in the other new tent on Black Hill Flat, where Moseley was making the like explanations to his equally inexperienced comrades, and the redoubtable Deane and Adams was duly emptied in its turn.

CHAPTER XIV
THE FIRST CLAIM

Moseley had amused himself, in the absence of his mates, by pegging out a supposititious claim, twenty-four feet by eighteen, just to let them see what they might expect between them elsewhere. He was much astonished, and withal as elated as his easy nature would permit, at Denis's decision in the morning. Denis found the pegs almost in the shadow of the blue gum-tree, beneath which they had pitched their tent, and he declared that they could not possibly do better. The tall digger was duly quoted on the possibilities of Black Hill Flat. Its merits as a residential quarter were already obvious. The Tynesiders' camp was the nearest, and it was not within speaking distance. As for Moseley, it entirely suited him to settle down with the least trouble and delay, in the first peaceful spot; and the party spent a happy Sunday in re-pitching the tent and carefully arranging the whole encampment.

The day was an experience in itself. It was kept wonderfully holy, for that community, in those wilds. Dent and Doherty took a morning walk; it did not interest Moseley, who had also volunteered to cook. But Denis was much struck and a little touched to meet the string of Sunday promenaders, all in their best and cleanest, as at home, and to realize that the average digger was a really law-abiding creature after all. Outside every tent the Sunday dinner smoked or hissed on fires all but invisible in the strong sunlight; one or two had been turned into canvas church or chapel, and a familiar hymn, heard in passing, was only the more moving for the gruff voices which groaned it forth. On one point Denis satisfied himself: not a hand was put to the cradle or the spade; and so peaceful was the impression left in his heart, that not even Moseley's cooking, which was very disappointing, could spoil an hour of that first auspicious Sabbath.

The gold license at that time cost thirty shillings; it had to be renewed monthly at the same tariff, and it carried with it as many vexatious restrictions as were ever put in print on document of the sort. But the three new diggers, who were the first to obtain theirs on the Monday morning, did not wait to read the regulations. Two of them rushed back through the heat to Black Hill Flat, where Doherty had turned the first sod, and Denis many more, before Moseley rejoined them at his leisure.



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