previous
next



  ― 124 ―

12. Chapter XII.

"Are you busy, captain? may I come in?" said Searle, knocking at the half-open door of the manager's office three days later.

"Yes, come in," said Trevaskis, without raising his eyes from the letter he was reading.

Searle waited a few moments, and then, with a rising choler that was new to him, he said:

"I had better see you when you're more at liberty; I have a very important––"

"Oh, go ahead! Have you overpaid some fellow by a couple of bob?"

"I want to give notice; I must leave the mine as soon as possible," said the purser, with a quiver in his voice.

And then he explained how a letter had come to him by that morning's post from his brother, who was a storekeeper at Wilcannia, and had broken his right arm rather badly.

"I have an interest in the business; in fact, all my savings are in it, and now my brother offers me a partnership, and wants me to start at once if I can. I would like to give a month's notice, but I'm afraid I can't."

"All right; just put it in black and white, and I'll send it on; I don't suppose it matters about a long notice. There are scores of poor devils looking for a job in town just now who'll be glad of the billet."

"They might be glad of it; it doesn't follow they would be fit for the position," answered Searle.

"The position! Do you call it a position, then?" said Trevaskis, with a harsh laugh.

Further acquaintance had not improved the relations between the two. It seemed to Searle that the manager had from the first an unaccountable "down" on him. As a matter of fact, a "fellow with too much of a gab,"note as he would phrase it, was always antagonistic to Trevaskis; and in the bitter mortification that possessed him–the sense of intense irritation, which grew


  ― 125 ―
greater instead of diminishing, as hour by hour brought home to him more noteclosely the complete social annihilation that had fallen on him–it afforded him a certain gratification to inflict annoyance on others. And to make matters worse, Searle found out that Trevaskis had spoken slightingly of him. It was told to him with the kindest intentions, but the result was not an increase of harmony.

Robert Challoner had called on Trevaskis the day after he came, and invited him to Stonehouse, as the managerial dwelling-house had been called when erected nineteen years before, and it enjoyed the distinction of being the first stone house in the Colmar district. It was at the foot of the reef on the northern side, where the reef was at its steepest, completely closing in the view southward, so that from Stonehouse nothing could be seen of the mine noteor its surroundings. There was also an avenue of blue gums and pepper-treesnote noteall round the house, which notehelped to mitigate the stern aridity of its surroundings. It faced the west, where the flat, illimitable plain all round was faintly broken in the notefar distance by notethe pale-blue lines, one beyond the other, known as the Euckalowie Ranges. The house was surrounded by a deep veranda, and there was a bay window on each side of the front door. One of these was open, and as Trevaskis went in with Challoner, who had met him at the gate, he saw a young girl looking out, whose face, with its rare dream-like beauty and deep, sweet seriousness, held him for a moment spell-bound.

The exquisite orderliness and tokens of refinement in the place, the welcome accorded to him by Mrs. Challoner, and the generous nature of the bottle of wine he drank with his host, all disposed Trevaskis to a more genial mood than he had experienced since setting foot on the mine.

"You see, if you feel inclined to notetake your family here after we leave at Christmas–indeed, we may leave a few weeks before our lease is up–you will have plenty of room," said Challoner.

But Trevaskis shook his head.

"Mrs. Trevaskis is rather delicate–always accustomed to plenty of servants and society and all that; and we have five


  ― 126 ―
young children. She would never consent to come, and I wouldn't ask her. Searle has a bedroom here?" he added notewith a pause.

"Yes; he always slept in the house to take care of it before we came; now we take care of him," said Challoner, smiling.

Then, noticing a hard, irresponsive look in Trevaskis' face, and knowing through Searle that the two didn't hit it very well, he tried to throw a little oil on the troubled waters by saying:

"He is really a very good fellow in his way, so trustworthy and good-natured."

"But what a tongue! I think it would be a very good thing for him to be put in solitary confinement for twelve months, so as to get him out of jabbering eternally. I never could stand a very talkative man," said Trevaskis, with so much irritation that Challoner was rather taken aback.

He could not deny Searle's garrulity, but he felt that the new manager was unjust to him in laying so much stress on the defect. Both men smoked for a little time in silence.

During the pause, the strains of a very sweet, plaintive melody, played on a pianoforte in notethe adjoining room, became audible. Trevaskis listened with rapt attention.

"That is Miss Lindsay playing–the young lady you saw as we came in," said Challoner.

"I should like to hear her nearer," replied Trevaskis–"if it is convenient," he added, as he noticed a certain hesitation in Challoner's manner.

"I will ask my wife. If––"

"No, no! I see it is later than I thought," said Trevaskis, starting up, a deep hot flush rising in his face. He stared at his watch hard–not that the time was of any importance to him, but because in the sudden revulsion of feeling, the deep annoyance and confusion, he hardly knew what he did. He bade Challoner a hasty good-bye, and without waiting to see Mrs. Challoner, or leaving any message, he strode away, deeply, irretrievably offended.

"I ought to have put it more gracefully, I suppose," said Challoner, staring after him.

Mrs. Challoner came into the room a few minutes later, and


  ― 127 ―
looked round in amazement at finding her husband alone.

"He is gone; I am afraid he is a little huffed," Challoner said, in his slowly contemplative way, and then he told his wife what had happened. "I would have explained to him that Miss Lindsay was not so much our guest, as a young lady in our care with her own rooms and servant, and that we could not ask anyone into her room without leave; but he went off in sparks,note as James would say. And you know, wife, I can't take people by the throat to put them into good humour, and reel off a speech in half a minute to make them see how things stand."

"I am afraid he will be a bad successor notefor poor Dunning if he has such a disagreeable nature. And I am sorry for him, too, poor man! I thought he looked very low-spirited."

"It's conceit–my dear, it's conceit," returned Challoner. "You may speak of the pride of the people in the old country, whose genealogy didn't stop this side of Adam, but they're humble and companionable compared to men like Trevaskis," said Challoner, who was a quietly observant man, with an innate perception of character, strengthened by that eye-to-eye intercourse with his kind which prevails in these lonely spaces of the earth, where human nature plays a larger part than convention. He returned to the subject noteagain that evening.

"You can see Trevaskis is the sort of notea man who can be uncommonly nasty if he chooses, and I'm afraid he has taken a dislike to poor old Searle." Then he repeated to his wife what Trevaskis had said, and she suggested that he should give Searle a hint.

"Just tell him, Robert, that you can see the new manager is one of notethese people very reticent and disliking unnecessary talk. He won't take it amiss, you know, he's so good-natured."

"Yes, he has no more gall in him than a pigeon;note I wish––" Before the wish found expression there was a sound of footsteps on the veranda.

"Now, Robert, have a talk with him; just try and smooth matters," said Mrs. Challoner as she left the room, for they both recognised Searle's footsteps. His bedroom was on the reef-end of the house, with a door opening on the veranda, so that he could


  ― 128 ―
get into his room without going through any other part of the house. But it was understood when there was a light in the general sitting-room Searle should come in and have a cracknote if he felt so disposed. He did so on this occasion, and soon gave Challoner the opening which he did not desire, but which, as a dutiful husband, he felt impelled to turn to advantage.

"The new manager is, no doubt, a very clever man," said Searle, in a would-be dispassionate tone; "but if he doesn't learn to keep a civiller tongue in his head, I'm mistaken if he won't have the miners by the ears before long."

On this Challoner rushed in medias res.note He found himself, at the end of what he had to say, with Searle aggrieved, disturbed, and questioning. Challoner had little of the diplomat in him. What he had to say must come out square and unabashed, with no gentle inferences, no half-tones. All these might exist in his intentions, but he had not the power of turning words to exquisite purposes and curious niceties of speech. He could not express the finer shades of sentiment, although he felt them. He was astonished at the look of deep resentment on Searle's face. Garrulous people are never without a deep substratum of self-complacency, and the purser was wounded to the quick. If there was one thing on which he prided himself it was noteon his ability to talk well and fluently, to be by turns grave and gay, instructive and amusing.note

During the days that followed he spoke to the manager only in monosyllables. But the joy of revenge was sobered by a suspicion that the less he talked the more pleased Trevaskis was. It noteis very likely Searle would not have so promptly responded to his brother's proposal to join him in storekeeping if it were not for the craving to startle Trevaskis with such a bomb-shell. And after all, the bomb-shell had fallen as flat as a damaged rocket.

But there was balm in Gileadnote for Searle's ruffled feeling when, notein less than a week after his resignation was sent in, the following note came from "the Honourable Stuart Drummond, M.L.C., Chairman of the Directors of the Colmar Mine Company," as Searle, swelling with importance, styled him in telling the event to Challoner that evening:




  ― 129 ―

"Dear Mr. Trevaskis,

"My nephew, Mr. V. Fitz-Gibbon, has decided that he would like the post of purser and storekeeper at the Colmar Mine, at least till Christmas. The directors and myself are satisfied that Mr. Fitz-Gibbon–who, by the way, is a B.Sc. of the Adelaide University–is qualified for the position. You are probably aware that, on coming of age, he succeeds to my late brother's property, and, as his heir, Mr. Fitz-Gibbon will have a direct stake in the Colmar. We hope you will find it convenient to let him gain, under your skilful supervision, a practical insight into the working and prospects of the mine.

"I am, etc."

"So it seems my successor isn't to be one of those poor devils who noteare walking the streets for a job, after all," said Searle, with ill-concealed triumph.

Trevaskis made no reply.

"A Bachelor of Science. noteI expect he's well up in geology," said Searle.

"Do you think so? Generally, a colonial degree means a young fellow's head has been muddled with books he never understood," sneered Trevaskis as he walked away.

"I'll give him a good dig, though, before I leave; I'll let him have it hotnote somehow," thought Searle, staring after him. "A young gentleman, with a fortune behind his back, with a direct stake in the Colmar: he can't bully him as he does everyone else. I believe he dislikes the new purser more than the old one," said Searle, with a chuckle.

But if the surmise was correct there was no sign of it in the manager's manner when Victor reached the mine by the mail-coach which ran daily between Colmar and Nilpeena.

"I'm afraid you won't find this a very entertaining place," said Trevaskis, as the two were on their way to dinner at the Colmar Arms.

"Oh, I think I'll like it, for a few months, at any rate; the country is so unlike anything I've been in before," answered Victor, glancing around.




  ― 130 ―

"Oh yes, there's novelty in more than the landscape here," said Trevaskis, with a short laugh.

He found a malicious satisfaction in anticipating the novelty of a hostelry like the Colmar Arms for the young gentleman who had come to such a hole from caprice.

Mrs. West, the landlady, was still waiting for a cook. Her baby was still getting his teeth, a process that seems to colour one's views of life as darkly as losing them.

"It's always like this; that wretched kid hardly ever shuts up," said Trevaskis, as the mother and child disappeared, the latter keeping up an easy sing-song sort of wail, that swelled threateningly if he were too long neglected.

"Poor little beggar! He wants a little more nursing than he gets, I expect," answered Victor; and when the two returned, he called out cheerily to the culprit, holding out his watch as a bait.

"I say, little one, would you like to see a tick-tick?"

The child looked hard at the watch and then into the noteyoung men's faces.note After making this preliminary inquiry into their character, he seemed rather to approve of them. He gave a feeble smile, and then he slowly and gravely walked up to the new-comer, making a wide circuit round Trevaskis, looking at him in the meanwhile with a gloomy interrogative expression which greatly tickled Victor. He piled some sofa-cushions on a chair, and placed the child on them beside him, and gave him his watch to wind up. It was a robust, silver stem-winder, and after listening to its creaking sound for some minutes, as he turned the stem round, the child began to watch what went on noteat the table, and then stretched out his chubby hands for a share.

When the mother next entered the room, she found noteDick munching a slice of bread-and-butter, and trying to keep up a conversation with his new friend.

"Your baby is a long way ahead of me in language, Mrs. West," said Victor. "What can be the meaning of a "bid dod in the bat wad"?"

"He is trying to tell you noteabout the big dog in the back yard," answered the mother. noteOn hearing Victor's hearty laugh at this


  ― 131 ―
translation, she recalled a few more of Dicky's speeches equally noteremote from the common tongues of humanity. Presently the landlady was deep in a detailed account of her trials with notedomestics.

"Why don't you get middle-aged women, who wouldn't notebe likely to marry?" said Victor sympathetically, after listening to a heart-breaking noteaccount of successive cooks and housemaids who had been obtained at high wages with passage-money paid, notewhose career at the Colmar Arms came abruptly to an end with the catastrophe of a brief wooing and notea speedy wedding–even of clandestine departures without a wedding at all.

"Oh, blesh you, sir, if they was that old as they was likely to die of their years, they'd marry at the Colmar. You see a 'atter's life is a very lonesome one–I mean one as lives to hisself.note When you go among the miners' huts and tents you see some closed up, with a padlock on the door–that's notea 'atter's place. West, my 'usband, he was comin' along with you from Nilpeena, and he heard as you was the new purser. "But what a young swell like that is comin' 'ere for," sez he––"

"But I'm not in the least a swell; I could rough it far more than I'll have to do here," said Victor, a little chagrined that his rough suit of navy-blue serge, his blue-striped shirt, with an unstarched turn-down collar, and his soft gray hat did not save him from the imputation.

"Indeed, sir, swell and all, you're a kind-'earted young gentleman! To see the way as that crabby child took to you! An' though I'm 'is mother, I know he ain't sweet-tempered; but what can you expect, sir, with three double-teeth–one above, and the others in the lower jaw?"

"Lays himself out to be popular, that's evidently his notetack,"note thought Trevaskis as he listened. As for being depressed by the crudeness of his social surroundings, they all seemed to strike Fitz-Gibbon as so many points of interest. He laughed more than once on the way back to the mine, recalling Mrs. West's despair at the craze her domestics took for matrimony as soon as they reached the Colmar.




  ― 132 ―

"That's the place of one of the hatters who will be on the look-out for the new cook," he said, as they passed a little one-roomed hut with a big padlock on the door. "By the way, captain, shan't I be a hatter, too?" he added.

Trevaskis explained that there was a manager's residence on the north side of the reef, now let to some family, in which the purser had a bedroom. As they drew near the purser's office, Searle came to the door. Trevaskis had taken Victor down into the mine, etc., before dinner-time, so that he and the ex-purser had as yet hardly exchanged any words. The little man was eager to assert himself.

"I should like to stay a few days, if possible, to explain the books and that to you, Mr. Fitz-Gibbon, but I am afraid my time––"

"Oh! don't trouble yourself, Searle. After all, it is a very simple matter. Just to keep the time-book, pay the men on Saturday, noteand see that a proper account is kept of the consumption of stores," said Trevaskis contemptuously.

Searle coloured deeply, and Victor hastened to say:

"It may be very simple when it's done by an expert like Mr. Searle, captain, but it's different for me. I know I shall be a bit of a duffer at keeping the books at first. If you could stay a few days, I should be awfully glad," he said, addressing Searle, who expanded under this speech like a bud in the sunshine. He would try. He thought, perhaps, he could manage to stay two or three days longer, if Mr. Fitz-Gibbon thought it would be a help to him.

"The greatest in the world. I know how very well you have done your work; I heard of you in my uncle's office," said Victor, who had, indeed, heard Searle's work highly commended, and was glad to proclaim the fact so as to atone for Trevaskis' brusquerie.

"Soft sawder.note An Irishman all over!" thought the manager, as he strode away, leaving the two together.

Surely none of the duties of a mine purser were forgotten that afternoon by Mr. Searle. There was the day-book, in which things bought and sold were kept; the cash-book, showing receipts and expenditure; the invoice-book, the cost-book, the ledger and the time-book. It was over the latter that Searle took


  ― 133 ―
his most spread-eagle flights, impressing on Victor the profound importance of entering each man's time and avocation correctly from shift-bosses' records. Underground there were the able-bodied miners, the shovellers, the truckers, the rock-drill foremen, the rock-drill labourers, the air-winch boys; above ground, the engineer, the engine-drivers, the stokers, the battery-feeders, the pan men, the hands at the stone-crackers, etc., nearly all at different wages. Sometimes a man would be engaged as a shoveller half of his shift, and as a trucker the other half. Care must be taken that he was entered at the two rates of wages, etc., etc., etc.

At last Victor declared that his head was ringing, and that he began to suspect it was as difficult to be a good purser as it was to be a great poet. It made him low-spirited to look at the immaculate figures and copper-plate writing in that pile of books, of which he greatly feared he would make a howling mess. Searle was radiant, and administered fitting consolation. Then the two went to have a look round the mine, and Searle of course made straight for the iron passage, and detailed its marvellous history, sparing no detail as to its length or cost, or the number of sheets of galvanized iron in it. Then he made such mysterious allusions to Webster's history, that Victor begged him to relate the story, which Searle promised to do before he left. Finally, after the two had tea together at the Colmar Arms, and a bottle of Bass's ale,note and a game or two at billiards, he insisted on making up a bed for himself on the bunk that was in the office, and then went across to Stonehouse, to introduce the new purser to Mr. and Mrs. Challoner. And there, in the room facing the reef, Victor wrote his first letter to Miss Paget–one which would reach her a few days after she landed in Colombo.

"You know," he wrote, "how I came prepared to "hump my bluey,"note metaphorically speaking? Well, as far as that goes, my coming to the mine is up to this an A1 swindle–a sham as complete as the little Arabian birds you bought at Aden. Figure to yourself that you are peeping into my bedroom. Let me assure you that there is not the slightest impropriety in the suggestion, for it is a very pearl of bedrooms–in a stone house! with a Kurdistan rug before the bed!! another before the wash-hand stand!!! a third before the toilette-table, made up in pink and white, like a young lady going to a ball!!!! pillows with ruffles


  ― 134 ―
round them, on the outside of a knitted counterpane!!!!! I notebetter not use up all my store of exclamation points in this one letter, for I foresee I may need a few more later on. I had some thoughts of concealing some of these details from you, for it is rather galling to come away to the heart of the barren Salt-bush country to the "diggings,"note and find noteoneself in a room overflowing with voluptuous splendour. I could put up with the rugs and the ruffles and the lady in pink and white–now don't be suspicious (vide top of notepage)–and even with the cake of almond soap I found in the soap-dish when I went to put my great square piece of plebeian yellow soap into it; but what do you say to long white muslin curtains to the window!!!!!! But this is upholstery. I must come to actual people. And first, one of my college chums, Maurice Cumming,note is within fifteen miles of the mine. He and a brother have a little sheep-run–at least it used to notebe a sheep-run, but the rabbits are eating them out. As to the manager–it is etiquette to call him captain on the mine–if you were not preternaturally English, Helen, and me so fearfully Irish at times, I should tell you that when I first saw him I had a Presentiment–with a capital letter, as you may notice. When he is not on guard, there is a hard, angry look in his eyes. At all times his manners resemble the snakes in noteIceland;note but he has lost all his money, and notehas to come away from his wife and children. Wouldn't I be savage, too, if I had to leave my wife?" etc.

previous
next