― 228 ―

8. Chapter VIII.

On the following Saturday morning the mail-man brought Victor two more boxes of flowers. These he sent across at once to Stonehouse by Mick, and then went to the post-office for the mine letters, as was his custom each morning, half an hour after the mail had been delivered. As he walked leisurely along smoking a cigarette, he gave himself up to the pleasure of imagining Doris's delight on finding one of notethese boxes entirely filled with white and Parma violets.note He pictured her to himself bending over these, holding them to her face, talking to them, kissing them. . . . His cigarette went out and he threw it away, hastening his steps with that rapt expression on his face, and that unseeing look in his eyes, which tell of entire abstraction from the objects visible to material sight.

He still in some fashion kept up the fiction to himself, that his feelings were of the most benevolent and disinterested friendship. But in the midst of his happy, engrossing thoughts this morning he became conscious of an inner voice struggling to ask him questions. None are so deaf, however, as those who won't hear.note But it may be taken for granted that a week is the utmost limit of time during which one can be happy under false pretences. Among the letters that Victor received was a bulky one from Miss Paget. At sight of it he drew a long breath, and capitulated to the inward monitor, without even attempting to make terms. It was on last Sunday he sent away his reply to Helen's previous letter. Not a line had he written to her since; how often had he thought of her? What dreams and visions and reveries, on the other hand, had been with him day and night of a certain face and form! How constantly the thrilling tones of a low sweet voice had been in his ears!

"But what else could happen, after once seeing Doris?" he asked himself helplessly. The bare thought of her prevented him from

  ― 229 ―
being as unhappy as he felt he ought to be; for the longer he looked at Miss Paget's letter the more clear it became that he had made a frightful mistake in supposing that he loved her. Perhaps she knew, perhaps that was why she put off notethe engagement–after all, they were not engaged. The relief he found in this thought made him feel ashamed of himself. He took refuge in trying to think of something else. There was that cave room he was to search on Monday; whether it contained treasure or not, it would make the subject of a long letter to Helen. He could tell her about his first notemeeting Vansittart, and the comical interview between him and Trevaskis. . . . "Even if at the end of the probation appointed by Helen"–here Victor paused, and then, with the felicity of his father's race, he put the point–"we neither of us wish to make our friendship into an engagement, we shall still remain friends–I am sure of it. I must not send a miserable scrappy letter in answer to one like this."

He went into the manager's office with his letters and papers.

"I suppose I can begin my search of the underground room on Monday, as we arranged," he said.

Trevaskis had opened one of his letters. He read it rapidly, and said in a hurried voice: "I half expected this: I am called away on urgent private business. I must telegraph to the secretary at once. Will you kindly take this message across to the telegraph-office for me?"

He got a form and wrote: "Called away on urgent private business; forced to apply for a week's leave of absence, dating from Monday. Please reply at once."

In less than two hours a reply came, granting the leave asked for. Trevaskis was in the purser's office talking to Roby and Victor when the telegram was handed to him.

"There is a man near Malowie I have to see," he was saying to Roby. "Do you know whether the train stays half an hour or so at that station?"

"Iss, it's the change o' gauge,note cap'en."

Trevaskis glanced over his telegram, and then a sudden thought seemed to strike him.

"I could be sure of finding him at home on Saturday night. . . . I ought to have applied for my leave from to-day,

  ― 230 ―

"Oh, as for the matter o' that, what be the differ, shouldst 'ee leave to-day or Sunday a'ternoon?"

"Then if I went by the second train, the one that only goes to Malowie, I could catch it this afternoon?"

"Oh, sure 'nough, the mail coach gets in half an hour before she parts."

"That's what I'll do, then," said Trevaskis in a tone of sudden determination. "Just send word to the mail-driver to call round, will you, Roby? I don't think there's anything else to arrange about during my absence besides what we've gone over."

"Oh, everything will be all right, cap'en. You see, I'm used to bein' left in charge at a hour's notice. I've had notemany a year practice at it," said Roby, with his large smile as he went out.

Trevaskis discussed one or two business matters with Victor. Then, as he was going away, he said in the careless tone in which one speaks of an indifferent matter: "Oh, and, by the way, the search business had better stand over till I come back."

"Just as you wish, captain," answered Victor, who was in reality not very much engrossed by the affair.

Trevaskis had studied every move beforehand, taking precautions against each contingency, by giving himself a wider margin of time. He had chosen Malowie as the station at which he would get out, because there, the crush of people and the hurry and bustle of changing carriages made any chance encounter less dangerous. On reaching this station, he took the carpet-bag containing the gold and the disguise out of his portmanteau. The latter he booked to go on by the early Monday train. It was some time before he could get even this simple detail attended to. The rush to Broombush Creek, which had subsided for a day or two, had now assumed phenomenal proportions. Gold had been discovered in large quantities over a wide area, several nuggets weighing over sixty and seventy ounces. And there were the usual sensational rumours of even larger nuggets, whose lucky finders were not anxious to spread the news of their good fortune. More than seven hundred men were on their way to Nilpeena by the train that would reach it on Sunday morning. The railway people were unprepared for so unprecedented a

  ― 231 ―
crush of passengers, in addition to the ordinary numbers, and the platform and offices presented a solid mass of excited, struggling, noisy men, each one fighting for himself. A rumour had spread that the carriage accommodation was insufficient, and the confusion that ensued was indescribable.

Trevaskis saw several faces he knew in the thick of the crowd, but they did not notice him, and he did not speak to anyone. He breathed more freely when he got away from the railway-station. He took a short cut through the township, and walked on rapidly till he reached a creek thickly lined with ti-tree, two miles and a half away from Malowie, in an easterly direction. Here he assumed his disguise, beginning with his clothes. He put on a dark loose, earth-stained pair of trousers over those he wore; he took off the coat he had on, put it into the carpet-bag, and in place of it wore a long shabby dust-coat. Then he lay down, making a pillow of his carpet-bag. He dozed fitfully for a couple of hours. As soon as daylight reddened the east, he fixed a pocket looking-glass in the fork of a tree, and performed the more delicate shades of his toilet. He put his soft silk beaver in the carpet-bag, and wore instead an old gray hat, with a slouching brim, which he pulled well over his eyes, and knotted a large red silk handkerchief round his throat. When he looked at himself, with his brick-red complexion, his straggling gray hair falling over his neck, his thick grizzled moustache and long silvery beard, he could not repress a triumphant exclamation of pleasure. All that remained for him to do now was to transform the carpet-bag into a swag. He took out a little black billy, one which he had found in one of the storerooms and blackened over an impromptu fire of deal boards in his room on the previous night, and a thin, brownish-red rug which he had rolled round the gold. He got a slender piece of wood the length of the carpet-bag, which he folded within it, so as to stiffen the outline. He tied up the whole in the rug, turning in the edges well over the bag, and strapped the swag with an old saddle-strap at each end. Then he fastened a loose cord between the two, and slipped the swag over his shoulders, carrying the billy in one hand in orthodox tramp fashion.

He struck across country till he gained the highroad, and followed it on to the second railway-station beyond Malowie, and twelve miles distant therefrom. He chose this rather than the

  ― 232 ―
nearer station, partly to pass the time, and partly because he wanted to have a good long tramp, so as to get the dust well into his boots and face and clothes. As there was a high easterly breeze with a strong touch of hot wind, this purpose was well effected by the time he reached Kilmeny. It was a straggling little township, its chief features being a big flour-mill and two public-houses. He went to the one nearest the railway-station, a shabby, one-story building in which no one seemed to be astir, though it was now close on eight o'clock. The only inmate visible was the landlord, a big, fat man, who was shambling about the house in an aimless and discouraged manner. He was keeping house, he said, and didn't know where the things were kept very well. He offered Trevaskis brandy and water and cold beef and bread for breakfast, adding, "Every soul 'bout the place has gone off to the diggings except my wife, who was confined of two twinses a couple of days ago, and a female cook likewise down with the mumps."

But Trevaskis would touch no stimulant.

"I want no speerits; if ye can't give me a dish o' decent tay I med as well be goin' to th' next house," he said in a gruff voice, with an unmistakable Cornish accent.note

On this the landlord bustled into the kitchen, and in twenty minutes brought him a teapot full of tea.

"One o' they cross-grained old Cousin Jacksesnote as go mouching alone for gold," said the landlord, speaking of Trevaskis to a customer who had dropped in for an early "phlegm-cutter."note "You can see by the look of him he's been living alone somewheres like a wombat, till notehe has got out noteo' the way of havin' even a proper Christian drink. I remember––"

His reminiscences were cut short by the sound of a bell forcibly rung. Trevaskis had finished his breakfast, and now ordered a bedroom. As soon as he was shown into one, he locked the door, took off his wig and beard, put his swag under the bed, and, throwing himself on it in his clothes, he was fast asleep in a few minutes. He slept till sunset, and then rose and had another nondescript sort of meal, in the course of which the landlord entertained him with anecdotes of the "twinses" and the sudden exodus of more than half the male population of Kilmeny for the

  ― 233 ―
new diggings.

"It's close to that there Colmar Mine, as is so notecelybrated for 'anky-panky tricks," he said, and then, without receiving any encouragement from his listener, he launched into a description of some of the more notorious episodes in connection with the Colmar. "They get managers there up to all the tricks going for to line their own pocketses. They say they've got hold of a very straight man this time, but that wicious in his temper–he gives the chaps the rumblesnote for a day and a 'arf with slanging of 'em."

Trevaskis cut short this pleasing picture of himself by asking for his account, including bed and breakfast; he paid it, and then, having secured the window and locked the door of his bedroom, he went out for a stroll. He passed a little wooden chapel, through whose open door and windows the sound of a powerful voice was plainly audible. The wind had fallen, and the twilight hush was unbroken, except for that deep resonant voice. As Trevaskis leant against a post and rail fence smoking, close to the side of the chapel, the preaching man's message reached him word for word:

"When the devil wants to get hold of you," he said, "he don't come all hoof and claws, a-butting his horns into you, and driving you head foremost into crime. No; at first he takes slim liberties, so to speak, and they are so like something you've been doing before, you don't find it out all at once. Then, after a bit, you do something shadier than before–still, not so very black; and you feel sorry about it when you lie awake at nights. But by-and-by you get over that, and you go on and on, till––" Here the preacher dropped his voice impressively, and Trevaskis went on his way with a hot, deep flush surging up into his face, under the swarthy dye that was part of his disguise.

He had in early life been intimately associated with an ardent section of the Cornish Primitive Methodists, who dwell on every incident of individual life as a special act of over-ruling Providence. At this moment, old associations returned to him, with all the vividness that notecharacterize the early impressions of a strong and tenacious nature, whose forces have for the most part been concentrated in a narrow groove. Ideas had played so small a part in his adult life, that those which had been early implanted in his

  ― 234 ―
mind slumbered there as hard and clear and unmodified as in the days in which he had first assimilated them.

"It is a warning–as sure as God is in heaven–it is a warning sent to me," he said over and over to himself, striding on he knew not whither. Year by year his past life unrolled itself before him, and he saw as by a lightning flash of quickened observation the steps by which he had been gradually familiarized with dishonest practices. As a boy of fourteen, he had in working on tribute with his father come to learn by experience that cheating, when practicable without detection, was reckoned no disgrace,note among a large proportion of miners. Even some of those who held forth as class-leaders and local-preachers would, when the opportunity arose, act without scruple on the maxim, "Fear God and cheat the company." He himself, since he had come to man's estate, had little qualms in over-reaching his fellow-men, in grasping at a larger share of profits in mining work, or mining speculation, than rightly belonged to him. But never before had he been concerned in any act that would, if unveiled to other men, have placed him on the list of criminals. Now he seemed vaguely to perceive that his previous life had been an insidious preparation for crime; that at the critical moment the avarice of a lifetime, intensified by poverty, made the opportunity of being rich by secret theft an irresistible temptation.

"Then after a bit you do something shadier than before . . . by-and-by you get over that, and you go on and on till––" That blank, which his mind involuntarily invested with a sombre fascination, daunted him more than the most voluble catalogue of crimes. His disguise, which at dawn of day had given him a sensation of gratified triumph, seemed to him in the gathering twilight as ignominious as convict chains. "I'll sling up the whole affair,–yes, I'll sling up the whole affair," he repeated to himself at intervals, with the iteration usual with him when deeply moved.

Night fell, and a luminous space of silvery light in the sky heralded the moon's rising. He found himself on the outskirts of the township, near a cottage with a little garden in front full of flowers. The windows were wide open, and he saw by the lamplight in the room within a quiet family group. The mother with an infant in her arms, the father with a large book and two or three children grouped round him, an older girl seated at

  ― 235 ―
notea harmonium playing a hymn tune. Presently she began to sing, in a sweet though untrained voice, "Shall we gather at the river?"note and the younger children clustered round her and joined in. Then the father stood up, and his deep bass gave body to the clear high treble of the children's voices. It was all as commonplace as the light of heaven. But to Trevaskis, in the awakened forecasting state of his imagination, it all seemed part of a plan by which he was led to review his deeds before it was too late. The man in there sang peacefully with his children, while he skulked about, disguised like one who had shed blood–no, he would go no further on this path, whose beginning was a theft, whose end no man could foresee.

What should he do with the gold while he went on to town? But now, the moment he began to consider how he should relinquish it, the love of this thing stirred his heart with a deep masterful yearning. The thought of resigning it to other hands filled him with vindictive jealousy. It was not as if it could be handed over to the rightful owner. Probably it would be claimed by the Government, and what would Government do with it? Squander it, as noteit had squandered millions before, on foolish railways to nowhere through desert country, on crooked jetties from which to load wheat that would not be grown, on marble staircases and Persian carpets for fancy viceregal country houses.note Could not he make a better use than that of it–he who had lost his notehardly earned thousands through the knavish duplicity of other men? He had wronged no one by taking this gold . . . and he had gone too far to retreat. As for the remaining notestores of gold, that clearly belonged to the company.

"But if I take this, I'll be sure to struggle somehow for the rest. Twenty thousand pounds is a fortune; but as for two or three thousand . . . I've had a warning–I've had a warning. What made me come away and leave the gold there under the bed, and stop by that little chapel and listen to the way the devil tempts and tempts a man to the very brink of hell?" He stood on the brow of a little hill beyond the confines of the township, whose lights gleamed here and there through open doors and windows. The tinkle of a bullock-bellnote or two in the distance was the only sound

  ― 236 ―
that broke the profound calm, while in the heart of this solitary man raged a tempest of conflicting thoughts and desires.

All noteround, as far as the eye could travel, lay small habitations of wood and iron, in the midst of wide wheat-fields, where the crops were stunted and meagre with the long-continued drought. Three or four weeks back, prayer for rain had been offered in all the churches throughout the colony; but as yet no rain of any consequence had fallen, and in this northern region much of the wheat must perish in the ear.note Thinking over this, Trevaskis asked himself what reason there was for believing that Heaven was really much concerned with the conduct of human affairs.

As the impulse towards right-doing had been awakened by material fears, so the reascendancy of the strongest motives that swayed his nature was strengthened by like tawdry misconceptions of spiritual influences. And yet he did not revert to his former purpose without a further effort at resistance.

"It is close on nine o'clock now," he said, looking at his watch in the notebright soft moonlight. "I won't go back to the public-house till near twelve; the publican will before then make sure I'm not returning, and he has of course a master-key to open the locked door. Well, if he or anyone else has found that gold he can keep it. I'll ask no question, or hold up my finger, but take it as a proof that what I heard to-night was not a chance, but a warning and a sign from above."

He passed part of the time resting against the trunk of a gum-tree, part in striding about and watching light after light disappear in the houses as the inmates retired to rest. Sometimes he was overpowered with dread lest the gold might be discovered and tampered with, and again he found himself hoping that it might be all stolen. . . . "They say they've got hold of a very straight man this time." The words came back to him mockingly again and again. He had always prided himself on his reputation for integrity. To hear the estimate in which he was popularly held thus spoken of by an entire stranger, in a remote little township, curiously quickened his determination, once this trip was accomplished, to run all risks rather than that of detection.

Within the last day or two he had sometimes thought out the

  ― 237 ―
plan of removing all the great jars of amalgam into his bedroom, while Fitz-Gibbon searched the cave room–of making some excuse to Roby's wife, who came daily to tidy up his rooms, and dispense with her services while the treasure was in them. But from the first the risks daunted him. Now, during the hours of his self-imposed vow, he reviewed all the mishaps that might lead to detection if he took the stolen amalgam into his actual possession on the mine. He reflected that both Webster and Dunning had, under the most disastrous circumstances, been saved from being found out, by keeping their booty hidden in the cave room. As he slowly pondered over these things, he bound himself by a solemn resolution, in the name of his wife and children, that he would not allow any consideration to tempt him to remove the gold from its hiding-place till he could take it entirely away from the mine.

"After all that has happened in connection with the Colmar, in the way of murder, insanity, and sudden death, I'd rather let the young jackanapes go down and discover the lot than fill my room with stolen stuff," he thought. "But, no, no! as sure as my name is William Trevaskis, I'll find some means or another of keeping his nose outside that iron wall until I've turned the gray stuffnote into bars of yellow gold, and carried them safe away."

So, after all his impulses of repentance, remorse, and fear, these were the thoughts that filled the mine manager's mind as he returned to the inn. When he examined his nuggets by the light of a scrap of tallow candle, flaring in a dirty tin candlestick, and found them untouched, the thought floated dimly through his brain that the best result of his hearing part of a sermon in that little wooden chapel had been, that in those solitary hours in the tranquil moonlight he had perceived how foolish and dangerous one of the plans was which had occurred to him regarding the stolen treasure in the cave room.