― 190 ―

4. Chapter IV.

When Trevaskis left the Colmar Arms, his intention was to go at once into the cave room and make a vigorous search without a moment's loss of time. On reaching the mine he found it was nearly eleven o'clock. According to his usual habit, he went across to the mouth of the shaft, and saw the night shift go below.

This was composed of thirty miners in all. To a man they were greatly excited by the news, which had already spread, of the pure nuggets exhibited in the bar-room by two diggers who had been prospecting not far from the mine.

"I got gold gravel there myself two year ago, out of which I made a ten-pun note,"note said one man not given to boasting or idle speech.

Ten of the men there and then gave notice of their intention to leave at the end of two days–the shortest notice which they could give without forfeiting wages.

"If I were wise, I'd throw up my billet here, and make for Broombush Creek before the rush sets in," thought Trevaskis, as he recalled some of his past experiences at newly-found alluvial diggings. Various schemes flitted before his mind. One was to ride across at daylight to Broombush Creek, and make an examination of the vicinity for himself.

With his long experience and practical knowledge of gold diggings, there might be a certain fortune for him in that place, if he pegged out a good claimnote and telegraphed to the directors of the Colmar noteMine to accept his resignation from the earliest possible moment. He was so engrossed with these plans that, when he went into the cave room and looked around at its huddled confusion, his first impulse was to leave it without wasting any time on such a wild-goose chase.

The excavation was at its highest from nine to ten feet in height. The roof sloped away irregularly, extending on the north

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or reef side in a sort of low wide passage a little over three feet in height. The floor in the main body of the place was littered with old mine tools and disused machinery. Only the middle part was kept clear. Here there was a space of ten feet by twelve, covered with a square of linoleum. In the centre stood a small deal table, a canvas-back lounging chair, a stool, etc. Close to the table there was a large shoe-trunk, on which were placed two or three old cases with empty and half-empty bottles, containing various chemicals, such as nitric and sulphuric acid, mercury, borax, and carbonate of soda. There were, besides, strips of buckskin, canvas, and chamois leather.note At a little distance from this space, and near the entrance, stood a bunk with a narrow paillasse and one or two rugs over it. Close to it stood the invalid-chair, covered with dust.

Trevaskis placed the lantern he had brought on the small deal table, and turned over the contents of these cases. The last he examined contained the usual solvents for gold, and all that was necessary for assaying it by cupellation.note He was familiar with the way in which some men became infatuated in the matter of experimenting with gold and with the minerals that notecontained it. He perceived that some of the previous managers of the mine had been bitten with this mania. Webster, probably, in particular, the man who was now in the lunatic asylum, constantly raving about the three hundredweight of gold which had at one time been in his possession. All this would be more than sufficient to account for the stories in circulation as to the treasures of the cave room.

As this thought passed through Trevaskis' mind, he glanced round at the piles of discarded or worn-out machinery, elliptical sheet-iron buckets, broken hand-pumps, a little champion rock-drill with the cylinder smashed, a double-ended boring hammer, a few roll-picks, long-handled shovels, claying bars,note noteetc. Then he looked with some attention at the two furnaces close to the western side. He found they were fixed in a strong and workmanlike manner. As he was examining these, he noticed a water-tap in the wall hard by. This tap was very stiff, but after some pressure he succeeded in turning it, and water poured out. So, then, it was connected by a line of underground pipes with the

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tank at the end of the offices, which was supplied with water from the main tank of Colmar.

It suddenly struck Trevaskis that a tremendous amount of ingenuity and labour had been expended on this place in one way or another. Could it all have been the freak of a man notegoing mad? "I don't believe it," he said to himself half aloud.

Then, for the first time, Trevaskis became convinced that some person or persons had carried on experiments to a singular extent in this place. This conviction made him begin to search in a methodical and careful manner.

He began with the large shoe-trunk. Having removed the cases that were on top, he tried to open it, but found that it was locked. A nearer examination showed that the lock was of the frail description usually found noteon such trunks. He further noticed that a small label was gummed on the top of the trunk. On wiping away the dust which covered it, he found that this label bore Dunning's name. He could not open the trunk without forcing the lock. After a brief pause he resolved to do this. Looking round the room, he soon found a hammer and a chisel. With a few blows he broke the hasp and noteopened the lid.

The trunk was almost empty. There were some papers, some half-worn clothes, a large bottle of laudanum,note almost full, and a bunch of keys–five in all, two very small. Trevaskis took these out and looked around with increasing interest. It seemed unlikely that these keys should be kept here unless they were used to open boxes stored in the same place. There notewas a pile of wood and some bags heaped up near the furnaces. He turned the bags over, and found that they contained coke. There were six bags in all, and as he displaced the last he noticed that the ground close to it, in a southerly direction, was slightly raised. He instantly got a double-pointed pick to turn the earth over. At the first stroke he felt the concussion of the pick against a hard unyielding surface. Upon this, he got a shovel and worked more cautiously. In less than two minutes he had uncovered the lid of a large strong wooden box. It was fixed in a recess in the ground, and in front there was a slight cavity facing the lock. The largest of the keys fitted it, and Trevaskis turned it with a somewhat

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unsteady hand.

This box, unlike the other, was quite full. On top there was a suit of clothes which seemed very much out of place in a receptacle so jealously guarded. To wit: an old well-worn gray overcoat, very large, and not free from stains; a pair of dark moleskin trousers, with some earth-stains; a soft brown felt hat with a large brim, and a corduroy waistcoat. Trevaskis regarded these articles with some wonder. They were exactly of the kind that old Bushmen have by them as a best suit. After putting these aside, the next object that attracted his attention was a large carpet-bag. He took it by the handle to lift it out with one hand, but he could not move it without a strong effort.

"There's gold in it! there's gold in it!" he cried in a voice hoarse with excitement. His hands trembled as he fitted one of the small keys into the lock. But though he uttered the words over and over again, and in a manner believed them, the sight that met his eyes when the bag was fairly opened, and the upper layers of cloth removed, fairly took away his breath.

There were in all seventy-eight nuggets of gold, each folded in a piece of buckskin. Some of them weighed from seven to ten ounces, others a few pennyweights. He unwrapped them one by one, till they were all uncovered, lying in a great heap of almost pure gold. As Trevaskis looked at this, his breath came fast and thick, his lips were dry and parched, his head dizzy.

"It isn't Colmar gold–it's nugget-gold.note It's the gold that Webster took from the tributers near Hooper's Luck!" he said in a low, horrified whisper. And close on this came the thought that this gold was stained with blood, and that he would not touch it, that he dared not take it for his own. But the thought carried no conviction with it, and died away almost as soon as it arose.

Some of the kindly old divines who write with ardour of the beneficence with which the world is governed, would have us believe that temptations are sent in proportion to the degree of man's strength to resist them.note When we leave the optimism of the cloister, we are unfortunately met by the fact that many temptations come with cruel psychological exactness at the moment when the one who is tempted is least able to bear the strain. Never before had gold, and all that it can buy, been so passionately coveted by Trevaskis as on this night.

"There must be two thousand pounds' worth of nuggets here,"

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he thought, taking notethem up one after the other slowly. Then a hazy recollection shot across his mind, of having seen an old pair of scales notesomewhere among the débris around. In a few moments he had discovered them, with the weights, hard by, wrapped in a piece of brown paper. To weigh the nuggets of gold, from the largest to the smallest, was the work of a quarter of an hour. There were five hundred and forty ounces in all, and so little of quartz or foreign mineral matter that barely twenty ounces need be deducted on this score. Yes, there notewere over two thousand pounds' worth, all ready packed in this carpet-bag!

There could be no doubt that it was the gold notethat Webster had committed murder for; and after Searle told his tale to Dunning, the late manager had discovered the gold here. Was there any more? What of those ten months during Webster's management when the weekly yield of the Colmar Mine had fallen from a thousand ounces a week to less than six hundred? What about Searle's statement as to the strange diminution in the amalgam? In face of the possibilities that these thoughts suggested, the gold he had discovered began to appear but as a paltry stop-gap in Trevaskis' eyes. For the first time in his life, a feeling of voracious, overpowering avarice seized him. Gold, gold, in masses, in heaps, in quantities to represent twenty or thirty thousand pounds! This was what would really mean restored wealth and prosperity for him. Was it, perhaps, hidden in heaps somewhere within this cave room? Was it for nothing that these furnaces had been so firmly fixed, and all the requisites for smelting gold provided?

Trevaskis, feeling as if his brain were on fire, renewed his search in the box with feverish haste. But very soon he was arrested by a strange and ghastly object. After removing a large flat portfolio, which lay under the carpet-bag, there was a square wooden box without a lid, the top covered over with several layers of tissue paper. In the act of removing these, Trevaskis became conscious of a faint, sickly odour. The next moment, as he lifted a sheet of paper, he caught a glimpse of human hair. He stared at the sight for a moment, in incredulous dismay. Then he removed the last sheet. Now there could be no mistake about it.

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The back of a human head, with long, thick gray hair straggling at the ends, lay fully revealed, and the nauseous smell had increased.

Trevaskis retreated some steps. The sweat stood in great cold drops on his forehead; his whole body was notelike a branch of shaking leaves. Should he replace the articles he had taken out of the box, close it, and flee? The thought of murder had been present with him from the moment he had sighted the nuggets. Involuntarily he had been, from time to time, on the track of the man who had ridden so hard to Hooper's Luck, and then back with these gold nuggets, leaving behind him a man stark and stiff, with his head horribly battered. Was this the evidence of another crime?

Trevaskis could not have told how long he stood overcome with horror and a feeling of miserable irresolution, when a sudden sullen reverberating sound seemed to shake the earthen walls and roof that environed him. He started violently, overcome with guilty fear. The next moment he knew that it was the sound of a blast in the mine, and with this the thought of his surroundings arose before him as vividly as they had pressed on his mind when he lay in the semi-obscurity of the bar-parlour in the Colmar Arms.

He closed the lid of the strong box hurriedly, and carried the portfolio and the carpet-bag containing the gold to the little deal table. On opening the portfolio he soon saw that it contained some of Dunning's private papers and letters. Among the latter he took one up at hazard, and began to read it without any thought of making a discovery that should affect his present position. It began with expressions of gratitude for the hospitality and kindness which the writer had received at the Colmar Mine, during a visit of four or five weeks.

"And now let me tell you," said the writer on the second page, "that so far from having forgotten our talk the night before I left, as you seem to fancy, I have been more successful in carrying out my commission than I could have hoped. My dear boy, you may consider that your bet of £200 with your old Sandhurstnote mate is in your pocket! I tell you what, old man–I'll stake my professional reputation as a man of thirty, whose fate it is to take

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the part of an aged father and a doting grandfather more frequently than any other rôles, that the wig and beard I send you, coupled with a few other precautions, will render you absolutely unrecognisable."

"The wig!" repeated Trevaskis half aloud, with a dawning light in his eyes. In a moment he was back again at the strong box. He opened it and pulled out what looked like a human head. It was a wig, and under it was a long gray beard and moustache. At the bottom of the box lay a dead rat. Trevaskis hauled it out by the tail and flung it with all his might to the further end of the cave room. Then, with a feeling of growing triumph, the elation of a man who is gradually assured of victory, he returned to the table and began to turn over the other contents of the portfolio.

Presently he came upon a plan of the cave room–an exact drawing that showed the conformation of the hanging wall and the floor, with well-defined circles in sixteen spots, five of them in the narrow passagenote running northward. Trevaskis took one of the picks and dug cautiously, but with extraordinary rapidity. In a very short time he unearthed a large strong blue glass bottle, of the kind known as notethe Winchester pint.note It was closed with a glass stopper, and over this was tied several folds of newspaper. The bottle contained a solid grayish mass of matter, being about three-quarters full. It was amalgam. The quantity in the bottle Trevaskis briefly reckoned was worth one thousand three hundred pounds. If there were sixteen of these hidden in the cave room, the total value would be something over twenty thousand pounds!

His brain reeled at the thought. For a few moments a sort of paralysis of mind and body overtook him. He felt like one who in a dream stands upon a precipice where one false step may be fatal. The treasure was within his grasp: only, in the first moment of success, his joy and elation were quenched by the thought that in a few days Fitz-Gibbon would, as he had said, make a thorough search! But with the thought rose a fierce determination to prevent this in some way or another–in some way or another to secure the wealth around him. But the first thing was to make sure that it was here. With this thought, Trevaskis set to work once more. The five spots marked on the

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plan as being in the northern passage each yielded up its precious deposit of a large bottle containing, on the average, half a hundredweight of amalgam, which would, when retorted and smelted, yield about forty-two per cent. of gold.

After that, Trevaskis turned over one by one the other spots marked on the plan. Not one failed; each held its own share of the treasure. As he looked around, making calculations, and adding up the amount of this strange and suddenly discovered wealth, Trevaskis' attention was attracted by the look of the bottles which had been hidden in the northern passage. They looked much fresher than the rest. The notenewspapers which notewere tied round the stoppers, though earth-stained, notewere not worn. He unwrapped one of these. It contained a date, and the date went back no further than three months. At sight of this, Trevaskis gave a low ironical laugh.

"So it wasn't only Webster, and the other fellow before him . . . for I'm certain the one who first began to creep into this place was stealing the amalgam . . . it was the extremely able and clever and trustworthy Dunning as well," he thought. And then for the first time some misgivings, questions, scruples and remorseful qualms overtook him. One by one he replaced the bottles, and lightly covered them over. Then he went back to the strong wooden box. He turned over the wig and examined it attentively. He slipped it on his head, and found that it fitted him as if he had been measured for it, coming well down on his forehead and the back of his neck. There were fastenings in the wig a little above each ear, noteon which the patriarchal-looking whiskers and moustache noteshould be fastened. Trevaskis replaced both carefully in the wooden box without a lid. Close beside this he noticed a smaller one; it was locked, but the second of the two small keys fitted the lock. On opening the box he found it contained a fluid for darkening the skin, an adhesive gray powder for the eyebrows, and a crayon for deepening wrinkles. There was half a sheet of paper, with instructions on these points written in the same handwriting as the letter regarding the wig.

It was apparent, then, that, on the pretext of winning some bet, Dunning, the able, honest, and trustworthy manager, had

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through his actor friend secured the means of completely disguising himself. At the bottom of the sheet of instructions, Trevaskis read the words, "The wig and whiskers are those of a hairy old man who had been for some time remote from a barber. I think it would be well, in making your eyebrows gray, to brush them backward with a weak solution of gum. This will not only give them a hairy aspect, but aid materially in giving a different aspect to the eyes."

"He intended to go away the very day after that on which he was killed," reflected Trevaskis. "He was going to Melbourne, and going to take this nugget gold with him; that would be less suspicious than the amalgam. In fact, to sell amalgam would mean to be marked at once as a thief––"

Trevaskis paused at the word, and then uttered it half aloud: "A thief." It had an ugly sound. Yes, Dunning's plans had all been carefully laid; so were the plans of the men who had got the gold on tribute at Hooper's Luck; so were Webster's plans. As the ugly sequence of murder, insanity, and sudden death rose before him, Trevaskis felt an impulse to take a solemn oath not to touch this gold, to let it come to the company to whom it belonged of right, to let Fitz-Gibbon discover the lot, all but the nuggets, which would in the natural course of events revert to Dunning's heirs, when they came to claim the property he had left at the mine. It was so much mixed up with the company's property that it would be difficult in some cases to decide which was which. Another fact that had come to Trevaskis' knowledge, since he had been at the Colmar Mine, was that the directors had made an advance of salary to Dunning, to the extent of £150, a few weeks before his sudden death. Hence all his books, papers, and belongings were kept as security by the company, till a brother of Dunning's in one of the other colonies, with whom they had communicated, should repay the amount and claim the late manager's belongings.

Trevaskis pictured to himself this man's surprise and delight on finding that a box in an underground lumber-room contained over two thousand pounds' worth of gold; he pictured to himself Fitz-Gibbon's excitement and wonder on finding this great store of stolen amalgam. What a commotion there would be among the shareholders! Yes, it would be a nine days' wonder, and then it would be forgotten, and things would go on as usual,

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and he would remain in miserable exile in the heart of the Salt-bush country. Such a chance as this did not come in a man's way twice in a lifetime.

"Ah, what shall I do, what shall I do?" he cried, suddenly flinging himself down on the bunk that was close to the entrance into the room. His temples and pulses were throbbing stormily. His mind was in a whirl. He started up after a few minutes, and took up a double-pointed pick, with the purpose of beginning there and then to dig a great hole in which to hide all the amalgam. But the next moment he threw down the pick with a bitter smile at the senility of the plan. No possible hiding-place could be devised with any certainty of being secure, in a place that would be subjected to a "thorough search" by one looking for a treasure. His thoughts wandered to other modes of secreting this fortune. All around lay hundreds of miles of waste and uninhabited country. And yet there was no safety, no security, for such a treasure as this, except in the bowels of the earth, in a place locked against accident and design.

"If I could retort the amalgam in here. . . if I had even a month to turn round in. . . I could take up a claim somewhere near, and carry the gold away–according to Webster's plan. Once I had the gold in my possession, safe away from here––Oh, I'll do it, I'll do it, somehow or another, somehow or another––"

Trevaskis was pacing up and down rapidly, restlessly, with something of the fierceness of a caged animal, when suddenly a shrill whistlenote broke the silence. He drew out his watch and stared at it incredulously. It seemed impossible that this should be the summons at six o'clock in the morning for the miners who were to take the place of the night-shift an hour later. His watch had stopped, he had forgotten to wind it up; but he now noticed that the candle, which he had put into the lantern whole, was burning low. He stood for a moment irresolute. Then he took the carpet bag, containing the nugget gold, out of the box, and after shutting it he sprinkled some shovelfuls of earth over the lid. Taking the lantern, he went out of the cave room and into the passage, the long, narrow iron passage, whose length had won Searle's fond admiration. Now its purpose was apparent. It had been built by Webster so that he could pass to and fro, when he was robbing the mine and contemplating his ill-gained possessions, screened from observation.

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When he reached the first little square window, Trevaskis found that the sun was rising. As his eyes encountered the clear morning light, he became conscious of a sharp, smarting pain in them. The excited vigils of the night had made them worse. Yet so engrossed was he with the thought of his strange discovery, that as soon as he reached his office, and had locked the door leading into the passage, and put the gold into the strong safe in his office, his first act was to walk slowly down beside the passage, to examine its construction more closely, and to see whether any of the sheets of iron were loose. As he looked in at one of the little windows, he noticed for the first time that they were furnished with blinds of dark-green American leather.note These were now closely wound up, so that he had not previously noticed them.

"Ah, he forgot nothing!" thought Trevaskis, still gazing in at the little window.note At that moment he heard approaching footsteps, and a cheery voice calling him by name, which he recognised as Fitz-Gibbon's.