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Chapter XVIII. The Old, Old Game.

ONE quality colonials have, which is highly commendable, albeit it sometimes leads to awkward results. They pick up acquaintances easily, and make themselves at home anywhere without much loss of time.

Mrs. Rosa Chester and her husband had hardly delivered themselves of those criticisms, prompted by patriotic pride for their own settlement, before a suave and modulated voice repeated in their ears:

“You are perfectly correct in your remarks, and I heartily endorse your sentiments. It is a rotten hole without doubt, and the women are vulgar frights—from the delightful city of Sydney, if I mistake not?”

Rosa looked at the speaker and flushed prettily, for he was young and handsome, although vulture-like about the nose. Arthur regarded him with a slight restraint.

“Yes,” replied Rosa readily, “we have just come from dear old Sydney, and are going round to West Australia.”

“How very nice, since that is my destination. Also, madam, nice for me to have such charming company.”

He bowed to Rosa, who blushed again, and looked at him from under her eyelids, not that she

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felt at all shy, but that she considered this sort of affectation fetching.

“Do you smoke?” said the stranger, turning to Arthur, after a sweet smile or leer at Rosa.

“Yes,” replied Chester gruffly; he thought this stranger a little too sweet and complimentary for his taste.

“Try one of these—I fancy you'll like them,” continued their fellow-passenger, producing an elegant cigar case and holding it out, again turning to Rosa with his most fascinating air:

“That is, if madam does not object.”

Madam could hardly object, seeing that on every side the passengers were puffing away like engine funnels; however, she replied:

“I simply adore tobacco.”

At that instant a noseful of negro-head wafted her way, and caused her to choke for a moment.

“When it is tobacco, and not tar-barrel,” she added, with an angry glare at the owner of the negro-head.

Chester looked at the open case and noted that the contents were choice; his glance also travelled to the hand that held the case, where he saw on the little finger a plain gold signet ring with the square and compasses stamped upon it, and his reserve instantly melted.

“How old are these?” he asked, looking at the polite stranger.

“A little over ten years.”

“Ah, then they ought to be good enough, yes, I'll try one.”

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Both men laughed as if a joke had been uttered, but a little dried-up-looking man with a dark and sallow face, who was standing near, stepped forward and coolly also abstracted one of the cigars, saying:

“Excuse me, gentlemen, but I am in the cigar business, and if these cigars are ten years old, they are not worth—a match.”

He looked at the cigar closely for a moment, then smelling it, he bit off the end and proceeded to light up.

“Cool rather,” remarked the young stranger, glancing sarcastically at Rosa and Arthur, while the withered man said calmly:

“Not so dusty, only it's been forced in the drying, and has not yet passed the first anniversary of its birth. I'll give you both a respectable cigar after tiffin.”

In this way an acquaintance was begun between these passengers that rapidly ripened into a close intimacy for the rest of the voyage. Bertrand Decrow was the name of the young man, with the vulture-like nose, and steely blue eyes. He had come from the Charters Towers gold fields, and was going round to investigate the West Australian mines in the interests of some financial capitalists and partners of his.

“You are an M. E. then?” asked Chester with considerable interest.

“Not exactly, if you mean, is that my profession? I certainly know all about the geology of mines and gold finding—and am going to act as an

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expert just now, but it is merely for the selfish purpose of purchasing if I see a good chance.”

He spoke with the careless dignity of a man who had money to spend, and Chester resolved to cultivate him and draw him out. Being a native of Sydney and a lawyer, he considered himself smart enough for that bit of by-play, therefore, with a meaning glance at Rosa, he allowed her to take the young capitalist in hand, while he turned to speak to the cigar merchant.

“Delightful passage so far, isn't it?”

“Oh, we'll have it like this all the way,” returned the little man. “I travel this route often.”

They had got round Port Philip Head by this time, and the sea was still calm, almost as a mill pond. At tiffin there had been a full attendance, and no one showed the least symptoms of scorning dinner.

“The company won't make much out of their passengers this trip, I guess. They have cut down the fares very fine, and must lose on tucker when it is weather like this.”

Certainly the coasting steamship companies have almost arrived at the extreme point of cheap fares in Australia, as passengers are able to travel now first-class at about the same rate that was charged for steerage a few years ago, and at considerably less than people can travel round the coasts of England.

The company on this present passage, with the exception of the four who had struck up this sudden friendship, were of the most ordinary and

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uncouth description that it was possible to fancy ill-using a well-furnished saloon. They rushed and jostled each other for the seats on deck, and at the first sound of the bell for dinner drove downstairs like a stampede of cattle, “jumping” the seats, and refusing to abdicate if told that they had taken the wrong places.

The captain sat at the head of the table in a most dejected attitude, as if ashamed of the male and female animals he was forced to preside over, while the stewards in a panic, vainly tried to keep order and attend to their duty.

These colonials had paid their money, and they meant to take as much for the sacrifice as they possibly could, so that dispatch was the order of the hour, and each emptied the dish nearest him as rapidly as possible, without the slightest regard to his neighbour.

The first night Rosa might have fared badly, for she had not yet got over her strangeness, but Bertrand Decrow took her under his wing, got her down rapidly, and placed her beside the captain, with himself on the other side. By good luck also, Chester and the cigar merchant secured the two opposite seats, and so kept the rabble at the lower end of the table.

Decrow also proved himself a man of resource, and seemed to know the people he had to deal with, for as the steward entered with the vegetables, he stopped them from going past him until he and his protégés were served, therefore, Rosa felt grateful to him and soon recovered her native courage.

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“Now, steward,” he said in a loud tone, after dinner was over, “please to recollect that these four seats are engaged by us, and if anyone attempts to ‘jump’ them during this passage, I'll teach them a Townsville trick that'll make them sorry for it.”

The steward nodded knowingly and replied: “I know that trick, sir, and I think you may rest easy. I'll look after them.”

“All right, then we needn't break our necks after this over meal times.”

Decrow was a strong young man, with a long and carefully-cultivated moustache. He had also a musical taste, and could do a number of leger-demain tricks. While Chester and the cigar merchant went to the smoke room, Bertrand devoted himself to Rosa, amusing her and the others in the music room. He sang, and played on the piano, and accompanied her while she sang; afterwards they went together on the deck and did a little flirtation, finishing up the evening until the ladies' retiring hour, by showing her some pretty tricks with the cards.

Rosa felt she had made a conquest when she left him that night, with a tender and lingering squeeze of their hands, and, therefore, went to bed satisfied with her day, while he, equally satisfied, strolled along to the smoke room to have a final cigar and liquor.

When he got there he found Chester, the cigar merchant, and another of the passengers playing cards, and as Arthur wanted to have a chat with him, and the other man was just leaving off,

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Bertrand was easily persuaded to take his place in the next game.

They played for a few games at shilling points, most of which Chester won, then they passed down to the bar and had a drink or two, and afterwards went on deck. Here Chester proceeded to draw his young friend out on the duties of a mining expert, and soon found him to be one of the most confidential of Queenslanders.

“D'ye want to go in for that line?—for if you do, I can put you up to all the mysteries in no time. In fact, I'll introduce you as my man of business when we get there, if you like, and make it easy as drinking champagne for you.”

Chester had told him he was a lawyer and wanted to combine that with the other if it could be done; therefore the bargain was at once clenched between them, and the husband of Rosa also went to his berth satisfied with his day.

The next night while the two were again walking the deck, this confiding young man remarked:

“What do you think of our friend the cigar merchant?—he seems a bit of an eccentric, don't you think?”

“Yes, but he gives away remarkably fine cigars.”

“You are right there, and if he is to be believed, he is inclined to give more away than cigars.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he tells me that his partner—you know the firm, doubtless, ‘Sunthers and Green,’ of Melbourne?”

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“Oh, yes, I have heard of them. Good, safe people.”

“He is Green. Well, Sunthers is a bit of a philanthropist, and intends to endow an hospital up in Coolgardie, and Green has asked me to act for his partner and hand over a sum of money.”

“Why can't he send it on?” asked the lawyer suspiciously.

“That's where his eccentricity comes in. He wants to do it anonymously, and he cannot do this if he sends a cheque, while he has got the notion into his head that postal orders ain't safe up there. What would you advise? Should I take this job on hand?”

“I don't see why you shouldn't.”

“Neither do I.”

They walked along for a few moments silently and then Bertrand suddenly said:

“Look here, Chester, what's to prevent you acting in this instead of me? I daresay he'll be as ready to trust you as me with this anonymous commission, and it's more in your line. By Jove! it would be a first-class introduction, as they are sure to think it your own gift.”

“I won't say ‘No’ if he offers it to me,” answered Chester with a laugh; “and gives me a commission for my trouble, of course.”

“Of course that is understood. Well, I'll touch him to-morrow before we land, and let you know.”

Next day the matter was talked over between the three men, when Mr. Green, the cigar merchant, said:

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“Well, Mr. Chester, as you are a lawyer, I can depend upon your discretion, and if Mr. Decrow, whose name I know well as a Townsville mine-owner, is agreeable to vouch for you—excuse my bluntness, but business is business——”

“Of course I'll vouch for our friend Chester, but what will satisfy you?” answered Bertrand impatiently.

“Well, I'll give you my cheque for a thousand pounds, or if you like to come with me to the bank at Adelaide, I'll give you cash. Meantime, I expect you to hand over a sum of money, say two hundred and fifty, to Mr. Decrow, as a guarantee that you are above the temptation of actual want.”

“I suppose Mr. Chester's cheque will do for me to hold?” said Bertrand Decrow, laughing; “particularly if I have to hold it for any length of time.”

“Yes, if the cheque can be cashed at Adelaide.”

“Well,” answered the astute lawyer, “I don't happen to have a bank at Adelaide, but I am able to produce the coin if it is necessary.”

“In that case I'll make my cheque payable at Adelaide for eleven hundred pounds, one of which you will keep as your commission, and the thousand you will deliver to the Mayor of Coolgardie.”

Soon after this they arrived at Port Adelaide, and Rosa accompanied the three gentlemen to the city, Chester taking with him the cash required as a guarantee of good faith.

Leaving Rosa to take a walk, the friends went to a hotel, and after a bottle of champagne, Mr.

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Green filled up and signed the substantial cheque. Having done so, he bade them both good-bye and went away.

“There's a singular old card for you, Chester; you go over to the bank and see if it's all right; if it is, get them to make out an order on their Perth branch, and then we'll have a turn round the town. There, take back your coin.”

He pushed the chamois bag which had been given him a little way across the table, and Chester half reached out his hand to take it; then he drew back with a sheepish feeling lest the other should think him suspicious.

“No, you look after it for a few moments, Decrow; I won't be long away.”

He wasn't outside the hotel before he repented leaving the bag of sovereigns, yet he still held on to the bank.

The cashier looked at the cheque and said:

“We have no account with that name, sir.”

Chester rushed back to the hotel, but Mr. Decrow had just gone out, so had the two hundred and fifty sovereigns.