Denis Dent: A Novel
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Rather more than a foot's depth of black soil was soon turned up, and then rather less than another foot of reddish-coloured clay, much harder to work upon; by the time he was through this layer, Denis perspired freely, and was inclined to be irritable with Moseley, who was for "trying a tub" already, and seemed for once to have Jimmy with him.
"The wash-dirt's from six to twelve feet down," Denis objected. "Everybody says so; and we shall hardly get as far to-day. Besides, where's the cradle to try your tub in? I thought we would pick one up this evening."
"We might have tried some in a tin," said Moseley, who, like many a mild being, had no slight gift of opposition. "The way to paddock is to keep on trying it all the way down. That's what we used to do on Bendigo."
Moseley smiled, though with perfect amiability.
"Do you mean to say you don't know?"
"I wasn't on Bendigo."
"Well, it's the most superficial form of surfacing. But I'm not set on it," added Moseley, with obvious sincerity. "I only thought as it was cold tack for dinner, and three of us can't work at the hole, it would be something for me to do; but it really doesn't matter."
"My dear fellow, of course do as you like," urged Denis, as Moseley's tone made him critical of his own. "You're the experienced man, after all, and we're mates, not skipper and mate. Try a tinful by all means."
"No; on second thoughts, it's a long way to the water; but I'll tell you what I might do," said Moseley, brightening. "I might go and buy the Long Tom while you two work at the hole. That's a thing I could do, for it won't be the first I've bought."
Denis felt constrained to consent to this, but with misgivings, for his comrades' notions of economy were not his own. It was Moseley who had bought the pick and shovel, of their neighbours from Newcastle, with other articles of which the Tynesiders had duplicates, on the Saturday night, when, for all he knew, Denis might have returned with those very purchases; and the canny north-countrymen had found a customer after their own shrewd hearts. Now the fellow said he would not be gone an hour, which augured another incontinent bargain; and Denis dug on grimly into an eighteen-inch layer of stones and sand. He was not particularly pleased with Jimmy either; the little fool had looked so confoundedly eager at the prospect of a premature test, so ridiculously disappointed when Denis put his foot on it. However, he had not said a word, nor did he now that they were alone, which was more unusual. He merely looked on rather wistfully, because Denis would do all the work; but presently he began looking even more wistfully toward the tent; for a long hour had doubled itself, and still Moseley did not return, and still Denis wielded pick and shovel by untiring turns.
At last came Moseley, strolling with a huge cigar, and a box of them under one arm, but no cradle.
"I've got it," said he."It'll be here directly; a couple of Chinamen are bringing it slung on a bamboo pole. I got it you for thirty bob. But look here what I have brought – a box of the best – but they're out of my private pocket, and better not ask the price."
That day they got down four or five feet, and tried two or three tubs toward evening, walking over half a mile with each, first and last, and extracting altogether one pennyweight of gold precisely, or about four shillings sterling. And the expenses of the party to this date were ?18 10s.
The first week's record was bad enough to make them laugh and too bad to continue. Washing everything after the second day, they had exactly half an ounce of gold dust by next Saturday night, while their further expenses amounted to several pounds. Everything but meat was at a fancy price, and in the beginning some new appliance was wanted every day. Denis held out against the dearer items as long as he could in decency, but it did not grow easier to restrict the partner who had contributed the lion's share of capital. The second week realized three ounces (?12 1s. 6d.), and cost less, though Moseley insisted on laying in fifty pounds of flour as a bargain for ?2 15s. Denis for one, however, refused to be comforted by the second week. It was not bad, but to him a total and immediate failure would have been more acceptable than the prospect of a run of such insignificant success. The second week raised neither high hopes nor a laugh; the third began better, with an ounce on the Monday, but dropped at once to three or four pennyweight a day. This was worse than Moseley had done on Bendigo, and he was soon advocating a new claim on some lead that held good to the water's edge; but Denis was not so readily deterred, much less since at the outset he had invented a contrivance which reduced to a minimum the natural disadvantages of the flat, in the shape of a hand-barrow to hold as much wash-dirt as half-a-dozen tubs, and so save as many journeys to and from the river. It was only a couple of saplings with a few feet of canvas nailed across, which it took two to carry when full, but nobody happened to have thought of it before, and it was a success when nothing else succeeded.
These beginners had begun badly in every other way. There was really nothing romantic in the life as they found it. It was only fascinating to the spectator, or to the exceptionally successful performer. They had ceased to be spectators with the turning of their own first sod. There were many discomforts in the life. Moseley was quite an infamous cook, yet it was the one direction in which he exerted himself at all. He was still rather amusing, and would have been a capital companion in triumphant times, but Denis was no longer easily amused. Doherty was also disappointing; he had not been the same bright boy since Canvas Town. Denis himself was seen to have a temper, and not unknown to lose it; but they had drifted into a belt of unromantic experience not innocent of the actively abominable. One morning Denis woke itching; and in the leaden light he thought it was oatmeal on the rolled blanket which was his only pillow; but minute movements betrayed a nauseating form of life; in a word, the whole of his scanty bed-clothes were most thoroughly fly-blown. The day went in boiling them in salt and water, which carried the offense to heaven, and during this horrid task Denis did talk of pastures new, which Moseley at once went to seek. After a discreet interval he returned with glowing accounts of a disused hole near at hand on the Native Youth, and before sundown the three started off with ropes and spars to place across the top for a preliminary descent; luckily one of them threw down a log to stand on, the bottom being under water; for in another instant the pit was more alive than Denis's blankets, but with writhing bodies and red eyes enough to furnish forth a reptile house. Denis cut a slip from one of the spars, penciled the word SNAKES on both sides, and planted it like a rose-label as close as possible to the brink of this dreadful hole. Nor was the unfortunate day complete until they had tried a tub at the old place without getting a grain. It was the twelfth of November – in all fitness a Friday – and this is its candid record.
Moseley began to talk seriously of throwing the whole thing up. It was plain that he regretted his second innings on the gold-fields, yet he was not the man to desert his mates, and this soon became the greatest embarrassment of all. There was much that was lovable in Moseley. He was the cheeriest member of the party, and in happier circumstances might have been its life and soul. As it was, some ready conceit would often turn aside that wrath which indolence and inefficiency were peculiarly calculated to excite in Denis; yet Moseley was naturally indolent, and his inefficiency seemed nothing less than catholic. He might have been a genius, but if so it was at nothing that counted on the diggings. There he was unstable, indecisive, happy-go-lucky, a trifler, a procrastinator; hopelessly unpractical himself, and what was much more tiresome, a consistent caviller at the practical in others. His equally consistent good-humour was his saving merit; it also made him in a sense incorrigible, for one must be more of a brute than Denis could ever have been to blame with any bitterness a man who was at all times unaffectedly prepared to blame himself. There was, however, one occasion upon which even Denis felt inclined to say exactly what he felt and rather more. He had at last written a letter, and on returning from the creek with Doherty, had found it gone from the rack which a few stitches had made in the canvas over the place where he laid his head.
"Where's my letter?" he asked at once. His tanned face was pale as well as blank.
"It's gone," replied Moseley, with a reassuring nod.
"Gone! Who sent it?"
"I did, with one of my own. I say, I hope I haven't done wrong, Dent? It's English mail day, you know, and I thought you'd forgotten it."
"I knocked off early on purpose to take it myself."
"I'm awfully sorry, Dent, but I happened to see that it was already stamped."
"It's all right, Moseley," said Denis, conquering his displeasure, "and of course I'm really very much obliged to you, though I came back on purpose to post it myself. It was very good of you to trouble."
Moseley was beginning to look embarrassed, and not merely because he had meant well and done ill. He had not taken so very much trouble after all, and he was too good a fellow to retain more credit than his due.
"There was an old soldier came along," said Moseley, colouring: "not a bad old chap, but a bit of a gossip; he had a look down the hole, and asked how we were doing, and drank a pannikin of tea. As he was going to the post-office, and offered to post my letter for me, I let him take them both."
Denis could hardly believe his ears.
"You gave my letter to a strange digger?"
"And my own with it, Dent."
"A man you'd never set eyes on before?"
"I certainly never had; but we had quite a long chat first, and he seemed a decent soul enough. I saw no reason to distrust him, at any rate. I know what you're saying to yourself," added Moseley, as Denis smiled sardonically; "but I've been more careful since the lesson I had the night we met. Even if I'm still the worst judge of character in the world, what object could anybody have in tampering with simple letters like ours?"
The ingenuous question gave Denis an idea.
"What was the fellow like – to look at?" he asked in his turn.
"Oh, just a respectable elderly man, not much of the old soldier about him, but the diggings must be crawling with them, and how many look the part?"
"Then how do you know he was one?"
"He told me, of course."
"Had he a beard?"
"That goes without saying." Moseley and Denis were each growing one.
"But was his beard dyed?"
"No – gray."
"It should be gray," said Denis, grimly. "Did he tell you which diggings he came from?"
Denis breathed again. He knew that Devenish and Jewson were at the Gravel Pits. He had really no reason to connect the man who had taken the letters with the man whom he had in mind; and further questioning finally relieved him of the idea, partly because Moseley was unconsciously anxious to make the best of his emissary. But the altercation had stirred the emotions of both young men; neither spoke in his natural voice; each resembled an unpleasing portrait of himself. So much had been said, however, that it was an opportunity for saying more.
"You know, Dent," Moseley went on, "I've had enough of the whole thing. I made a mistake when I turned back with you, instead of taking the first ship home as I had intended."
Denis said nothing. The sentiment expressed was too identical with his own. Doherty reduced the considerate distance to which he had withdrawn, and there was no doubt he was beginning to listen.
"But I hadn't written to say I was going home," continued Moseley, "so I'm expecting my money at Christmas. It won't be much – thirty pounds – but it's sure. You see, my father wasn't so sanguine as I was when I came out, and he's allowing me sixty pounds a year."
Moseley smiled a little sadly. Doherty drew a few steps nearer. Denis had become a picturesque study in sympathy, framed in the opening of the tent.
"I wish I could persuade you to come home with me after Christmas!" said Moseley, wistfully enough.
Doherty looked tragically at Denis, but could have flung up his wide-awake at the way Denis shook his head without a word.
"Then I'll be shot if I go either!" cried Moseley, with a noble tremor in his voice.
"My dear fellow!" urged Denis, while Doherty spun round on his heel.
"No," said Moseley, "you stood by me, and I'll stand by you as long as you stay on Ballarat. It's no use talking, because I won't listen to a word. You went through fire for me, Dent – you both did – and I'd go through fire and water for you! And look here, Dent, I'll never do another silly thing, and I'll work harder and cook better – you mark my words!"
They were such as neither listener had ever heard from him before; but, Doherty was no longer listening with any interest, and Denis was too much affected to perceive that the humourist of the party was surpassing himself when least intending it. All he could do was to drop his two hands on Moseley's shoulders, and shake him affectionately until the fellow smiled.
"But what about the thirty pounds, when it comes?" asked Denis, with presence of mind and some sudden eagerness.
Moseley's face lit up with the sacred flame of loyalty.
"It goes into the Company!" said he. "I'll back you with my last stiver as long as you stay on Ballarat!"