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  ― 135 ―

13. Chapter XIII.

It was not till the evening before he left that Searle gave up the last insignia of his office.

"What! more keys, Searle," cried Victor. "Good heavens! how many am I to have in all? This makes seven, nine, thirteen–and two more fifteen. What is this long bright one for? it has no label."

"That is the second key of the strong safe in which the gold is kept," answered Searle slowly. "On the last cleaning-up day,note just three days before you came, we put two bars of gold into it, each worth one thousand five hundred pounds and a few shillings."

"Then there noteis three thousand pounds of gold in that safe now?" said Victor, regarding it with curious interest.

It was a massive fire-proof safe, standing in the north-east corner of the purser's office, opposite the door which opened into the assay-room, containing several furnaces and a large collection of chemicals in jars and notebottles, &c., &c.

"Yes, and when there's about another three thousand pounds' worth in it, Wills, our mounted trooper,note will take the lot in an iron box into Nilpeena by the mail coach, and there he is met by a trooper from town. You keep this key, the manager has the other, so you can neither of you open the safe alone."

"Have you ever had any attempt at robbery here?"

"Well, not by noteany outsider," said Searle with a mysterious air.

"Oh, come! this begins to be like a chapter in a shilling shocker,"note said Victor, smiling. But Searle maintained a very grave aspect.

"It is part of Webster's story, the strangest affair I ever was mixed up with. And do you know, Mr. Fitz-Gibbon, it's come across my mind once or twice that perhaps I notebetter not tell you."

"Why?"

"Because it seemed to me that after I told it to Dunning, the late


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manager–a splendid fellow, clever and well-educated, and such a pleasant-mannered man–a greater contrast to the present captain you could not see––"

"You're not in love with Trevaskis?"

"Nor he with me; but before I leave to-morrow I'll give notehim a little punch in the ribs." Searle's cheeks grew red with anger and wounded vanity.

"But what were you going to say–that after you told Dunning?"

"He never seemed the same man, somehow."

Though Victor had during the last three days been often amused at the solemn importance with which Searle would dwell on matters of small consequence, he began to perceive that there must be something tragical underlying this story.

"You can't expect me to let you off telling it after raising my curiosity to such a pitch," he said. "There's just an hour before we go to tea. You must come to the Colmar Arms with me, as it is your last evening. Can you tell it in an hour?"

As the story which Searle told is closely bound up with succeeding events at the Colmar Mine, it is necessary to give the substance of his narrative, leaving out the devious wanderings in which he indulged, especially in the earlier portion, when he gave an elaborate account of the way in which one of his eyes was affected with a cataract that at last obliged him to go under an operation in town, where he remained for nearly six months before he could return to his duties as purser. Webster had been manager at the mine for five months before Searle left. During his absence no regular purser was appointed.

"There was a man who went by the name of Oxford Jim at the winding enginenote for a few weeks before I left–I have heard that he's somewhere prospecting about here now," said Searle; "and Webster took him on to keep the books and so on while I was away. When I left, the mine was never more prosperous, and Webster was giving immense satisfaction all round. He was a great one for experiments. Before I left he had heaps of tools and machinery removed to the cave room. He got on notewell with the men, and everything was as cheerful as possible. When I got back and first saw Webster, I could hardly believe my eyes."




  ― 137 ―

"Had he altered much, then?"

"That's hardly the word for it; he was like another man entirely. He used to be rather plump and fresh-coloured; now his face was gray, with deep lines round his eyes, and a sort of quick twitch about them sometimes, and fearfully restless–always on the move, especially at night. It was a very rainy season when I got back, and Webster used to wear a big black cloak, and a hat slouched over his face. In these he was seen by people at all hours of the night, hanging round the mine, and some said as if he were carrying things. He had loads of some old tailings carted into the cave-ground room. The yield from the mine had fallen almost to nothing while I was away, and we thought this was working on the manager's mind, and that he was trying to get gold in some way or another to make up the deficiency."

"But a solitary man couldn't extract gold from tailings?"note

"Not very well without special machinery. Some said he did it only for a blind. At any rate, he used to be hours and hours in the cave room at night; and when I got back the iron passage was half done. He bought up second-hand iron from little mines and companies that had come to grief in the district; and though he said the passage would do to store things in, he had it noteup entirely at his own cost. He said it was a little fad of his own, and he wouldn't put the company to any expense. Well, after I came back things began to look up again. Oxford Jim went away. The morning he left he said to me, "Be careful about what you drink with the captain on cleaning-up days." When I asked him what he meant, he just laughed and went away. He was a queer fellow, with a curious twist in his mind that gave him a very bad opinion of everything in this world, and I may say in the next. He used to take opium and things; people did say he was hardly ever quite straightnote notethe days he used to help the captain in cleaning up the gold."

"Is cleaning up the gold a long job?"

"Here the whole process, down to smelting, takes about a day, sometimes a little longer. Your first experience will come off in nine or ten days. Webster and I always had something to drink together. Well, the second time we cleaned up, after I got back I felt rather stupefied. Next morning, when I saw the quantity of


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amalgam, I was simply thunderstruck; it was about half less than it ought to have been. Time after time the same thing happened, and Webster seemed to be getting queerer. He was brother-in-law to two of the directors, and had a good deal of influence, else I think he could not have carried on such a strange game so long."

"I wonder you didn't draw up a report or clear or something. It must have been deucedly uncomfortable."

"It was more than uncomfortable; but you know, Mr. Fitz-Gibbon, I'm not as young as I was, and I like things quiet; I'm afraid, too, Webster buttered me overnote a good deal. Still, in less than four months after I came back, the worry and fidget of it all brought on a weakness of my eyes, and I had to go away for two months. The mine had fallen off so much then that Webster took no one on as purser; and as it seemed that the Colmar would perhaps have to be given up altogether, the directors made no objection.

"Well, when I came back the second time there were the most curious rumours about an noteextraordinary rich lode, which had been opened up, and notea vugh of gold,note and all the rest of it. But there was hardly a soul in the mine that I knew; the engineer and shift bosses, all except Roby,note were new. As for the miners, of course they're always shifting about, except a few old hands who have their families here. The yield had improved, and Webster spoke of resigning. He had a claim at Hooper's Luck, nine miles from here, at which he had a couple of men working on tribute, and he said the prospects were splendid."

"Surely it was rather irregular for a manager to have a private job on hand while he was working for the company?"

"Oh, as for that, nothing can be more irregular than mining companies from beginning to end," answered Searle, who had been in some way or another interested in mining for many years, and could speak with more authority on this subject than on any other. "A man who can't earn his tucker in any other line calls himself a mining expert. He goes into the heart of the Bush, and makes assays and reports; and a company gets floated with directors that know no more of mining than I do of Hebrew. And there's no doubt that in some ways Webster was a very good


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manager, and a captain who has knowledge, and is believed to be honest, can do anything with any company."

Someone at this moment came into the assay-room, but neither Searle, who was absorbed in talking, nor Victor, who impatiently awaited the denouement of the narrative, took any notice. The assay-room was at the southern end of the offices, and the outer door often stood open until the offices were locked for the evening. It was Trevaskis who had come in and stood behind the half-open door leading into the purser's office, looking for some notechemical among the rows of bottles that were ranged on shelves behind the door. While thus engaged his attention was riveted by what he overheard:

"At any rate, Webster had this claim noteat Hooper's Luck, and he was always riding across to it, and always got very much excited when he began talking of it. He had bought an American waggonnote and a pair of horses, and he was buying up a lot of the old machinery that was about the mine–old furnaces and crucibles and so on.

" "I'll have a good many loads to cart to Hooper's Luck when I go there," he would say, chuckling and rubbing his hands, and then he would walk about and his eyes would begin to gleam. It used to come across me, that his mind was getting affected. One curious change that had come over him was that he had become most awfully miserly. An old friend of his that I met in town the second time I was there about my eyes, told me that Webster's father had become a perfect miser in his old age. A real miser, mind you, a monomaniac who lived alone and grudged himself proper food while he had great strong boxes full of gold and silver, and fifty-pound notes sewn into his old notecoat. One day when I was out shooting and had left my key noteto the safe with Webster––"

"Oh, it isn't imperative on the purser, then, never to give up his key?" said Victor, who had been gradually absorbing the thought that it notewas a mine-purser's duty to see that the manager did not commit theft.

"Oh no; we've often given each other charge of our keys when we were going away for a day or so. Once the gold is smelted and


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stamped and weighed, there's no chance of playing tricks with it. It's the white gold as the Chinese call amalgam that gets stolen by everyone in turn, from the manager to the pan-man."note

"Damn the fellow's impudence!" thought Trevaskis, and he felt inclined to give Searle a piece of his mind there and then for making so free with his superiors. But certain vague hints which had reached him regarding Webster of late, made him curious to hear the upshot. He stood at the shelves with his hand on the bottle he was in search of, so that if anyone appeared at either of the half-open doors, he might hurry away with the notechemical without betraying that he had played the part of an eavesdropper.

"Well, I came back after dusk earlier than I expected. I found the safe unlocked and the gold gone. You might have knocked me down with a feather, as the saying is. I instantly went through to the manager's office. The doors were kept open then, from one room to another, so that you could go through without going outside; and there are duplicate keys for the manager and purser, but the doors were hardly ever locked. However, when I got to the room next the manager's office the door was locked, but when he heard my voice he opened at once. "Ah!" he said, "you missed the gold; it is here, it is quite safe; but aren't they beauties, aren't they real beauties, shining solid and yellow? The more there is of it in a heap the lovelier it looks! Sovereigns are pretty to look at, but what are they noteto ingotsnote weighing three hundred ounces?"

"The bars of gold were lying on the table, and he had scattered handfuls of sovereigns over them, and he notekept bending over them and handling them, his eyes glittering as if he were in high fever. "Think of getting gold enough," he said, "to make fifteen of these bars–fifteen! think of it, piled one upon the other in a splendid glittering mass! Bah! when I make my pile at Hooper's Luck, I won't sell it–not till I have a little mountain, not till I have enough to make fifteen bars weighing each three hundred ounces. Good God! think of having a whole ton of gold, clean and pure, before you."

"He must have gone out of his mind; yes, he must have been


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mad. That evening I found it hard to calm him down. All of a sudden he cried out notethat the men at Hooper's Luck were robbing him. He was sure of it. But he would take them unawares, and search their tents and find a heap, a heap, a heap of nugget gold! He had put them on the claim, and paid them wages and given them tools, and now they were cheating him. He knew it. But he would steal a march on them, and I'm afraid he did it, too," said Searle, dropping his voice.

Trevaskis was surprised to find himself breathing hard with rising excitement. His imagination was strangely fired by thoughts of those gleaming heaps of gold which had been conjured up by the distempered ravings of his predecessor.

"It was two nights after that," said Searle, with a certain tremor in his voice, "that I was coming very late, early I should say, from the Colmar Arms. I kept a little more to the left than I ought to have done, and struck the stable instead of passing between it and the offices on my way across the reef to Stonehouse. The stable-door was open, and there was Nick, the manager's black horse, in a lather of sweat, and quivering all over. Next day news reached the mine that Hooper's Luck had been robbed and one of the men killed. His mate had got a lift in Mr. Challoner's buggy from Hooper's Luck to Nilpeena, and it was good for notehim he had such a trustworthy witness to answer for him. For at the inquest he admitted that he and the murdered man were concealing the fact that they had got about two thousand pounds' worth of nuggets, and that they had planned to clear with the gold for Melbourne in a day or two."

"And the murderer, was he discovered?" asked Victor in a low voice.

"No, but if my suspicions are right, the hand of God was heavy on him,"note answered Searle. "I kept on thinking of what the manager had said of stealing a march on the tributers, and of his horse in a lather of sweat between one and two in the morning, and the murdered man, and the stolen gold, and one thing or another, so that when I saw him I used to feel choked, and couldn't look him in the face. But there wasn't a breath of outside suspicion against him. I knew many a man has been hung on circumstantial evidence stronger than I possessed, and yet was


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proved innocent when it was too late. I would have resigned, but Webster was going as soon as they could get one in his place. And he was more than ever in the cave room–always, I think, part of the night.

"Everyone began to notice something very queer in his manner. At last one night, nine days after the murder, I was sitting here at this desk, making up the approximate cost, the door of the assay office was on the latch, as it generally was till I left for the night. It was thrown noteopen as if by a whirlwind, and Webster rushed into the office here, his face as white as a sheet, his eyes starting out of his head, the sweat in big drops on his forehead. "I saw him," he said, "I saw him, I saw him with his head all battered in, as sure as God is in heaven!" and with that he fell into a fit, foaming at the mouth. When he came to, he was so completely off his head that Wills, the police trooper, had to handcuff him and watch him till he got him down into the asylum."note

"And he is there now, isn't he? I heard something of his going insane, from the mine secretary in town," said Victor, "but not a whisper of anything else."

Trevaskis, who had listened to the close with breathless interest, was in the act of turning away with the bottle of nitrate of mercury, for which he had come, when again Searle's speech arrested him.

"That is the first act, and the second was nearly as strange. No, you wouldn't be likely to hear any whisper of the Hooper's Luck affair–for Dunning and I were the only two who knew; I told him in the greatest confidence. I would have told it to the new captain, too, for in a way I thought he ought to know, but––"

Then came a few words which Trevaskis did not hear. Searle was lighting his pipe as he spoke. But he heard Victor laughing, and a dull dark red mounted into Trevaskis' face at the sound.

"I may teach you to laugh on the wrong side of your mouth before I've done with you, young man," was the thought that rose in his mind, but more as an expression of quick anger than any serious resolution of revenge.

"And you," continued Searle, "will be none the worse for having


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your eyes and ears open. For more than seven months after Dunning came, I didn't say a word about the Hooper's Luck affair. I did go into the cave room with him one day, to have a search round. But there wasn't a thing in the place except old machinery and all sorts of odds and ends, down to an invalid-chair that one of the early managers had after breaking his leg. Then one night I told him, and the whole affair made the strongest impression on him. I fancy he began to prowl round in the cave room from that very night. He said to me one day, half joking, "What would you say if I discovered a great lode in that old cave room?" and I just told him, in the same way, not to begin to fossick in that place at any price.

"It was about six weeks later, I think, that Webster was discharged as being sane. We heard nothing of it till he came. He made straight for the mine. He got into Nilpeena by the train that reaches it at four o'clock in the morning, and tramped it here on foot, so that no one should know he was coming. There was a tremendous dust-storm on. You couldn't see from one end of the officesnote to the other. I was coming across after the three o'clock shift had gone to work. Near the assay office here I met a man bareheaded, his face as black as a pot, nothing white but the white of his eyes, and they were glaring like a wild cat that has a dog's teeth in its throat.

" "He has turned me out!" he said; "he won't let me into the passage or the old cave room."

"At that moment Dunning came out of his office and locked the door. Webster gave a howl like a dingo, and rushed on him. If I hadn't been there, I think it would have gone hard with Dunning. It was as much as we could do to hold him down till Wills got him handcuffed. He was worse than the first time, all the way down to Adelaide, so Wills told me. . . . It gave Dunning a nasty turn."

Trevaskis heard footsteps approaching the outer door of the assay-room, and noiselessly slipped out, carrying noteaway with him the nitrate of mercury. He had been in the room for about a quarter of an hour, and when he came out the wind had risen, and the dust was thick in the air. Looking eastward from the front of the offices, the great wide treeless plain, sweeping to the


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verge of the vague horizon, was enclosed in a lurid, reddish haze. The country in that direction was in places entirely destitute even of salt-bush, and the hard red earth lay gaping in wide cracks, which in a dry season, when the wind blew high, infected all the atmosphere with their own sombre stain.

"I don't wonder Webster went mad–living in a place like this for two years," thought Trevaskis, with a dull sinking of the heart. The reddish sultry air, thick with dust, throbbing with the din of the battery and air-compressors,note the smoke from the tall stack hanging in dense clouds overhead–all combined to make the atmosphere dark, heavy, and oppressive. To Trevaskis, who from time to time found himself stricken with attacks of acute depression that bordered on physical prostration, the place just then wore a menacing and almost infernal aspect.

He was still standing at notehis office door, looking blankly round with a sort of dazed impassiveness, when Victor and Searle approached him in eager conversation.

"I suppose, captain––" began Searle as he drew near. But before he could get any further, Trevaskis deliberately turned away, walked into his office, and slammed the door behind him.

Victor coloured to the roots of his hair.

"Never mind–I can have a look at it from the outside," he said hurriedly. He had been so much interested by what he had heard regarding the cave room that he wished to see it there and then. It struck him that there might be some indications which would throw light on the strange fascination the place had possessed for successive managers.

Searle had at once proposed that they should ask the captain for the key that opened the door leading from his office into the passage; and this was the result. Searle was voluble as to the captain's unprecedented rudeness, but Victor, resenting it still more deeply, would not discuss it.

"After all, no man would indulge in such an extraordinary freak without some strong motive," he said, as they walked down by the side of the passage till they reached the irregular, half-circular iron structure that enclosed the opening into the singular underground retreat.

"Or without being mad," answered Searle. "That was the


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conclusion Dunning came to after the most careful examination. But he, too, got quite fond of it for a work-shop; there's a heap of his things down there. As I was telling you, the shock of Webster's attack seemed to affect Dunning most strongly. The first thing that did him good was a visit from an old friend of his, an actor who was out of a billet, and came from Melbourne and stayed over a month with him. Then just before he was killed his health was out of sorts; he was afraid of some inward growth, and he had arranged with the directors that he should go once a month for a few days to Melbourne to be treated by some specialist. He was going to start the very day after he was killed–had everything ready. The directors thought themselves lucky to get hold of Trevaskis in his place, but––"

Victor discouraged reversion to this subject. Searle, however, had his innings when he bade the captain good-bye.

"Well, I suppose you're not sorry to go," said Trevaskis in a nonchalant voice.

"In some noteways I am," answered Searle. "The company have always treated me well; I'm not like the man who said:

" "First I was a master,
Then I was a grieve;
At last I got the dogs to keep,
And then I got my leave."note

But then, again, I'm glad that the company have sent a young gentleman of good position with an interest in the mine; there have been some curious tricks in connection with it before, and––"

Searle's heart failed him a little as he met the furious glare that came into the captain's eyes, so he cut his sentence short, and it was not till he was on the box-seat of the mail-coach bowling along to Nilpeena at the rate of ten miles an hour that he thoroughly enjoyed the "dig" he had given the new captain.

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