― 146 ―

14. Chapter XIV.

Victor did not find that the manager developed more companionable qualities as the days went on. There is, doubtless, often a great satisfaction to the unregenerate man in taking change out ofnote an offender by what Searle called giving a "dig," especially when the one who gives it is going beyond the reach of an inept pleasantry in return. The amazement which Fitz-Gibbon's voluntary sojourn at such a place as the Colmar caused Trevaskis was changed by Searle's parting words into a fast suspicion that notethe young man had, by reason of his large interest in the mine, come to play the spy on the new manager. Thus to the moroseness which his misfortunes and rankling sense of failure had induced was added the animus of a private grudge.

The result of this was not, however, at first bad for Victor; it had merely the result of making him work rather hard. During the first week he made several clerical slips which Trevaskis commented on with so much severity and rudeness that it was with much difficulty the young man kept his temper.

"Good heavens! how the animal sets my teeth on edge!" he said, and then he resolved that he would never give him the chance again.

For the next two weeks he worked late and early, mastering all the details of his work, making out lists of the stores on hand, so that he should not forget to order in time. As for the variations in the men's wages, he learned them off by heart, noteso that he should make no errors in writing out their weekly cheques. After this spurt of work was over, Trevaskis set him to take stock of all the mining materials in the various storerooms.

In this he had the assistance of Michael the notewater carrier. The mine was dependent for drinking water, as indeed were all the inhabitants of Colmar as well, on the Government tank,note

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half-way between the mine and the township.

"And very bad it do be getting, that same tahnk, Mr. Fitz-Gibbon. The dhry season is powerful bad for the tahnks; you gets down to ahl the mud and shlime and dead things."

They were in the ironmongery store, Michael calling over shovels, sieves, coils of fuse, picks, leather belting, kegs of nails, etc., Victor checking them off in his stock-book. After an hour and a half of this, Victor cried out, "Smoke oh!" and the two were talking as they spelled.note Michael was a nervous-looking little man, with a brick-red face, keen little brown eyes, and very red hair. As he talked, quick spasmodic twitches would from time to time pass over his face, especially round the mouth and eyes and across the nose.

"But, surely to goodness, Michael, you have no dead things in the tank out of which our drinking-water comes!" cried Victor, with a touch of dismay in his voice.

"Indade, sor, and there is, an' mahny's the time I've had to hould me nose while I'm taking a draught of wather. It isn't so bad as that this saison yet, and the Government they do be puttin' off cleaning the tahnk. We'll have a spreadin' illness, the typhy faver or some such, and then we'll be forced to keep a docthor to our own cheek."note

"By the way, Michael, what sort of a doctor is the man you subscribe so much a month for?"note

"Well, sor, he's a big fat mahn, wid half the alphabet at his heels, living on the other side of Hooper's Luck. Iviry month there's a shilling stopped out of our wages, as you know, to notegive him, for living beyand the reach of ahny rale disthress, I may say. We did just as well when he wasn't there, and we died quietly, widout the help of medicine, if the hour had come. Mahny a time I do be wondering, sor, how mankind will come and shtay in a place like this, and from all parts of the worrld. There's Runaway Hans–a mahn that used to notego whan voyage from Chiny to the Pyreamaids, where I am tould the corps of holy catsnote–the blissid saints forgive them!–and of moighty monarchs is kept as on the day they died, maybe shortly after the Flood; and yet that mahn left his kit and his Sunday breeches and three months' wage, to run away to the Colmar."

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"Runaway Hans!" repeated Victor, who was smiling broadly, and by this time decided that Michael was one to be cultivated; "ah! that's the yellow-haired young man with a strong German accent?"

"Yes, the same; he do thry to spake English a little, but what he mostly talks is, as you say, sor, the German ahccent. Well, and he left all that behind him, and noterun away for what? To scrape dirt underground till his guernsey pours over wid sweat noteliked a rag soaked in the washtub, and live undher a sthrip o' calico wid an oneasy perished branch o' sandal-tree to keep the hate out–which it don't."

Victor laughed; and at that moment Trevaskis looked in at the open door. His face darkened as he took in the frank, friendly relations which the young man had so quickly established between himself and Michael–the veriest drudge at the mine. Trevaskis' own manner to all who were under him was marked by a certain peremptory roughness, which is, as a rule, the note of the proletariat who has developed into the master.note In his most genial moments he would never dream of entering into any talk with one like Michael beyond giving him orders, and perhaps occasionally blaspheming his eyes for not being more prompt.

"That's his laynote–to worm himself into the confidence of everyone, and that old fox Drummond noteasking me to let him have an insight into the working of the mine. But I'll put a spoke in his wheel there!" thought Trevaskis, as he strode away after giving his orders.

"Barzillanote Jenkins is going off by the afternoon mail. I want you to make out his cheque, Fitz-Gibbon."

When Victor went into the office he found Jenkins, a big, brawny Cornishman, standing at the door as he had come up out of the mine–notehis face and hands black, his moleskin trousers stiff with clay and earth stains.

"You are at the rock drills, I think?" said Victor, turning up the time-book.

The man gave a muffled sort of assent. The men were paid each Saturday; this was Friday, but Jenkins was noteonly entered for two shifts.

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"Why, you are only down for two shifts, besides to-day's, since last pay-day, Jenkins!" said Victor, as he began to write out the cheque: "three days, at nine shillings a day."

As he looked up, to hand this to Jenkins, he was struck with the look of profound gloom in his face. There were suspicious light smears on his cheeks, too.

"It's just the inikity o' the oud Adam 'isself," he burst out passionately. "I missed two days' work, bein' on the drink, and now I've not enough to take me hum; and when I coom up this afternoon, I found this 'ere."

As he spoke, he handed Victor a telegram, which ran: "Your wife is much worse. Come at once."

"I 'ad a letter last week, as she was onwell," he went on, "and I knowed some'ow last night she were weered. I oft a' gone before. I might be sartin notedoctorsnote would do 'er no good."

By this time Victor had produced his private cheque-book, and was rapidly writing out a cheque for five pounds.

"Take this, 'Zilla," he said, putting it folded into his hand. "You can pay me back when it is convenient," he added, anxious to cut short the man's broken expressions of gratitude.

It was the personal relations into which he came with the miners that gave the strongest element of interest to the purser's work. Victor had strongly the sympathetic fibre, which is rarely absent from the Irish temperament when it has fair play. He had also that quick sense of humour which, under all circumstances, gives an enlivening strain to the serio-comedy of life. And at the Colmar, as in all other parts of the Australian Bush, there was a great deal of human nature about. It is true that most of it was quite in the rough; that there was little of those finely-spun hypocrisies, those keen but veiled rivalries, those subtle and contradictory nuances of character, which are developed among superior people, under the high pressure of civilization. Those politely ironical little stories that invigorate the languors of conversation, at the expense of mutual friends, were noteas unknown as the faculties sharpened only to invent means of killing time. But though there were no polished raconteurs ripely skilled in relating events which never happened, in a sparkling way, there was no lack of men who enjoyed hearing and telling such

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stories as came in their way in a somewhat Rabelaisian fashion.

At the Colmar, as in politer walks of life, those whose social instincts were most highly developed were not, as a rule, among the more admirable characters. They belonged rather to the habitual procession of the streets, with the chronic idlers left out, greedy for enjoyment in some form, and reckless as to the future. They alternated hard work with "betting drinks to the crowd,"note and going twenty-four hours without sleep. They preferred to give a fillip to one day at the expense of another, rather than have all days alike monotonous. Speed with an equivocal result fascinated them more than the undeviating pace of safety. Some of the older miners were Cornish Wesleyans,note who combined to hold "services" on Sunday, to get up teetotal entertainments, and generally influence the laxer brethren to adopt a more decorous mode of life. But early in his experience as a purser, it occurred to Victor that the miners would be a much duller lot than they were if the more serious among them had it all their own way. It is indeed a melancholy reflection that the good qualities of some people are æsthetically, oftentimes more unsatisfactory, at least to the mere looker-on, than the less virtuous qualities of others.

'Zilla Jenkins was one who hovered between the two camps–notesometimes severely virtuous in his conduct, and rigid in his condemnation of all carnal indulgence. During such periods he was a total abstainer, and had even been known to give rousing addresses on the evils of intemperance. But these were adventures in the higher ethics, which time after time ended in disaster. "Brother 'Zilla hev backslid again" was the testimony that had noteoften to be given regarding him at the chapel and blue-ribbon meetings.note

Two of these more serious miners interviewed Victor on Saturday after Jenkins had left by the mail-coach.

"About 'Zilla, sir; we does wish as you 'adn't a-beëd so kind to 'e," the elder said in an expostulatory tone.

"You see it's like this, sir," struck in the other man, before Victor, who was amused and a little taken aback, could make any response. "Jenkins hev gone back agin an' agin to rowl like the swine in the Scripthernote in the slime o' evil-doin'. 'Zilla gets sorry, but the repentance don't stick to 'e. Now, we was a-

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watchin' for this 'ere oppertoonity. 'Zilla's been bad on the noteburst.note News comes as 'is missus is hill, she's gen'ally hill–that's 'ow she can't leave 'er mother to cleave onto 'er man, which is the rule o' Gord and o' nature,note but she's got weerd and weerd, and 'Zilla he wants awful to git away; but he spent 'is money at the public-'ouse an' so did those as 'e goes wi' there. Why, sir, they're on the ticknote and on the borrowr from one month's end to the other. We was waitin' to the larst moment, an' then to come forrard and say: "'Ere, 'Zilla Jenkins, your missus is maybe i' the last gapse. 'Tis a gashlynote thing for a man to swaller 'is money an' make a beast o' 'isself onto the bargain, and then not 'ave enough to take 'im to his wife's berrin' maybe––" "

"You were going to say all that to the poor fellow, when he was in such a fix!" said Victor, keeping a serious face with some difficulty. "Well, I'm glad I gave him what notehe needed––"

"Ay, sir, but 'ow much better to slang 'e now than let 'e go straight to Berlzebub. We was goin' to lend 'im the money at 's awn 'count on a Hi Ho U, an' that 'ud 'ave 'elped to bring 'e back to the paths o' righteousness, so to speak, for 'e 'd a-been ashamed to spend 'is substance at th' Colmar Harms till 'e 'd a-paid us back, an' by that time we'd 'ave 'ad a sartin grip o' 'e––"note

A teamster came into the office just then, to tell Victor that four teams were waiting at the weigh-bridge to have their loads checked, so that he had to leave before Rehoboam Hosking had quite finished.

Rehoboam, or Roby, as he was usually called, was one of the three shift bosses of the mine, and the one who most frequently conducted services in the little iron school-room which stood mid-way between the Colmar Arms and the post and telegraph office. He had what some of the miners called "a great gift for spouting," and was fervid in organizing meetings of all sorts, in which he took a leading part. On Sundays he often preached morning and evening. His sermons and exhortations were of a very rousing, not to say overbold, description.

Thus, on one occasion when he was carried away by his zeal for conversions, he cried out in stentorian tones: "Descend upon us, O Holy Ghost, descend: if there's any damage done to the roof,

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there's not a shoveller on the Colmar that won't give a bob for repairs."

One or two Episcopalians who were present afterwards accused Roby of blasphemy. He denied the charge with great vigour, and affirmed that they and the Church they belonged to were "lukewarm Ladoshians, that the Amen of the beginning of Creation had long ago spued out of His mouth."note This was a flight in metaphor which reduced one of Roby's opponents to silence, while it confirmed the other in his worst opinions of the shift boss's divinity, and even of his moral sincerity. Henceforth notethe Episcopalian believed all that was said against Roby, for there were unfortunately stories abroad about him that somewhat told against his influence as a social reformer. In preaching, he was fond of describing himself as a brand snatched from the burning,note and with that complete deliverance from reserve and modesty, which so curiously marks the members of some religious sects, he would give graphic details of the noteway in which aforetime he had distinguished himself in evil doings. At teetotal meetings, also, he would relate with gusto how at one period of his history he had been such a slave to drink that his first wife had died from the effects of destitution and misery.

"But at the same time 'e notedoesn't tell 'ow when he was a local preacher and class-leader at the Burrar, 'e prillednote samples o' copper ore, and 'elped to start a little bogus company," an old acquaintance of Roby's would say, and another would recall an equally discreditable story. Were they all true? Whether or no, the man was a very "stirring" pulpiteer and blue-ribbonner. No new-comer was long at the Colmar without being importuned by Roby to give some assistance at the Saturday night temperance meetings, which were chiefly under his direction.

"The Lord did not make everybody smurt," he would explain with great unction, "but I blaiv iveryone as tries can do summat for a blue mittingnote–sing a song or give a bit o' recitation, or music on any sort o' machine 'e plays."

And thus Victor found himself pledged to Roby, to play a violin solo on the evening of each Saturday from the first week he came to the mine. Now it was four o'clock in the afternoon. The last of the men had been paid, and Victor had the office to

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himself. He took noteout his violin, tuned it, and began to play over the "Last Rose of Summer"note with variations. He had not played more than a minute or two, however, before he put the violin down with a little exclamation. The last time he had played this melody was at notethe concert on board the Mogul, accompanying Helen on the piano. The first few bars recalled the place and scene with the vividness which belongs to the associations of music, and with these Victor recalled that he had not finished reading her letter which had come by that morning's mail, posted the day after she and her father had reached Colombo. He had been interrupted in reading it; then he had gone to dinner; then he had paid the men; then he had gone to the weigh-bridge; and then–he had forgotten it. He admitted this to himself with a pang of self-reproach. It was notenew to him, this discovery that his thoughts and actions often fell below his own noteideals of what a lover should be.

And it was such a bright, amusing letter, the people on board so capitally hit off, and the landing in Colombo; the drive among the swarming native quarters, where you see the craftsmen in their tiny shops without door or notewindows, the coarse screens of split bamboos rolled up; here a blacksmith sitting cross-legged beside his anvil, there an enamel-worker, then a brazier's shop full of glowing copper vessels, the richer shops with tinsel-covered skull-caps, with soft white silks and muslins, petticoats and trousers for women, with spangles and gold and embroidery; the soft-faced bronze babies, arrayed in tiny loin-cloths and heavy bangles, toddling after the Sahibs, to sell them a big scarlet flower; the traders, with a single basket of mangoes and a small branch of bananas, under a cocoanut palm by the roadside; the Hindoos with their caste-mark on forehead and chest sitting sideways on bullocks; the big funny vehicles with a pagoda roof; the little bamboo carts drawn by tiny humped oxen that run as fast as ponies; the yellow-robed Mollahsnote under yellow umbrellas; the people who run after belated travellers with palm fans and screens of coarse bamboos, and great pineapples for threepence, and iced soda-water under the scorching sun. All was just as it had been on that day when they went

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through the place together.

"But what I like best to see are the natives of high caste in voluminous folds of pure white and majestic turbans," wrote Miss Paget; "their unmoved calm, their statuesque attitudes, their imperturbable mouths, make one feel that, as compared with Orientals, Europeans have, on the whole, degenerated into commis voyageurs."note

"What would Helen think of our miners?" thought Victor with a smile.

Then he turned to the letter again, and looked over it from beginning to end, while some feeling notehe could not have defined of loneliness notefell over him. Was it because existence at the Colmar, like a Chinese picture without shading or perspective, had begun to pall on him, or was it that the discipline under which Miss Paget purposely kept her feelings left a void that, with the roofless sort of sensation which had begun to creep over him, struck him with a feeling akin to physical chill? Only just on the last half-sheet, after the close of the long letter, in a sort of unofficial postscript, came a few tender words:

"I think I have told you almost everything, except that I often felt sad at the thought of sailing, sailing, sailing farther away from you every day. I am at this moment in a charming room at the Mount Lavinia Hotel,note where father's friend is established. They are both on a balcony somewhere, talking about classic odes. When I look out noteofnote the window, I see that lovely stretch of bright yellow sand, and the sea of an unfathomable blueness dying away on the beach. When I look through the doorway, with its khus-khus screennote half drawn up, there is a vista of polished floor and white-robed natives with bare feet gliding noiselessly about. Still I am rather sad, because you are not here. Dites moi quelque chose de tendre qui me fasse oublier ces tristes pensées."note

"Dear Helen! I must write her quite an epistle to-morrow," said Victor to himself, after reading these lines many times over.

Then he went outside and stood looking westward across the mine, with its groups of low iron buildings, the long engine-room in the centre, with its reverberating throb of machinery,

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the heavy folds of smoke rising above it and hanging low over the adjacent groups of the miners' huts and tents, and beyond the little township, with its small iron buildings equally bare, without the sign of a tree, or even a fence, to break the dull dead level. For the first time the austere, inexpressible aridity of the country seemed to weigh on him. It was now many months since a shower of rain had fallen in the district. The gray-green salt-bush was frayed and thickly coated with dust, the bare earth showing between the low bushes in baked gaps. Was there any other spot of the earth more desolate than this?–flat, parched, and gray, without shade or water, lying in measureless vistas, with an atmosphere so pure and clear, and a sky so cloudless and widely vaulted, that frequently the mirage we call the horizon was entirely absent? For how many hundreds of years had the sun beaten remorselessly upon the thirsty waste? As he looked at it, an immense longing came over Victor to see once more the deep dull green of hills densely covered with stringy bark, or to see autumn leaves whirling yellow and red before a high wind, under a threatening sky.

"Well, Mr. Fitz-Gibbon, are you admiring the western view?" said someone close behind him.

"Yes; admiring it all so intensely that it has given me a fit of the blue devils,"note said Victor, as he shook hands with Challoner, whom he had not seen for some days.

"You've been working too hard since you came here. My wife noteonly said last night you've never been at Stonehouse in the day-time, though you have been sleeping there for over notefour weeks.note You come away at daylight."

"Not before six, my dear sir. Don't make me out stupider than I am. I ride for an hour or so, then breakfast at the Colmar Arms at notehalf-past seven, and at notehalf-past eight I am in the office. Up to this, it has taken me eight or nine hours to do what Searle used to get through in five."

"Well, you know, Rome was not built in a day. I came across to steal a little keg of blasting-powder, but as you are about I suppose I'd better borrow it; and then just lock your office and come back with me to Stonehouse."

"Thank you; I'll come with pleasure," returned Victor; and after he had got the keg of powder for Challoner, the two went across the reef to Stonehouse.