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  ― 168 ―

2. Chapter II.

It was a curious little encampment, in the vicinity of an old well. Near it stood a horse in hobbles, looking around with a contemplative air, as if he were accustomed to a country in which it was easier to think than to feed. A little further on stood what at first glance looked like an irregular sort of tent. It was a cart, covered with a large discoloured tarpaulin, held down with stones at the back and sides. In front it was fastened back on each side of the shafts.

Close to the cart a wood fire was smouldering. Between the fire and the cart an elderly man was sitting on a low three-legged stool before an empty deal case turned upside down. He was smoking a pipe with a long many-jointed stem, and dealing out a pack of cards in two heaps. He was under the shade of a group of sandal-wood trees on the bank of the creek, yet his soft felt hat was pulled so low over his eyes, that as Victor approached he could see little of the man's face. Neither did he seem to notice the sound of the horse's hoofs.

Victor halted within a few feet of the fire, expecting that the solitary smoker would look up. But he went on dealing out the cards in unbroken silence, so engrossed in his occupation that he seemed oblivious of the rider's presence.

"Good-day, sir. May I come in?" said Victor at last, riding a little nearer.

The man did not start, nor show any appearance of surprise. Holding the cards he had in his noteleft hand fan-wise, and pushing his hat back a little, he looked at his visitor.

"You may come under such shade as there is, certainly, young man; but to ask you to come in is beyond my power."

"But is it agreeable to you that I should come under the shade?"

"Agreeable is a comparative term."

"Ah, I see, you really don't want to be interrupted. Well, please


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excuse my intrusion."

"Intrusion? Not a bit of it! Come under the shade and have a pannikin of coffee.note By the way, do you like coffee?"

"Oh yes, very much," said Victor, who was really loath to go away without having some talk with this eccentric recluse.

At the first glance he did not look very much unlike notean ordinary Bush labourer. But as soon as he spoke, it was evident that he belonged to a different class.

"I cannot offer you a chair," he said, after Victor had dismounted and fastened his horse to one of the sandal-wood trees; "and I fear there is a slight weakness in one of the legs of this stool. But I ought to have a box somewhere equal to your weight."

He dived in under the cart and brought out an empty kerosene case,note on which Victor seated himself, with an apology for the trouble he gave.

"It's no trouble at all," returned his host. "In fact, I should probably not give you a seat if it involved any trouble. If you'll excuse me for a few moments, I'll finish this game with Jack."

"Jack! where is he?" said Victor, looking round with surprise.

"He is not visible to the material eye," answered the man gravely. "He formed my acquaintance shortly after I dropped out of the ranks.note I think he had some vague idea of setting up in the ghost business; but I didn't approve of that line, so I adopted him into the bosom of the family, so to speak. He plays a very good game in his own way–a very good game indeed."

He went on smoking and dealing out the cards very slowly. It was apparent from the heaps already on the table, and the number still in his hand, that there must be two packs of cards required for the game that "Jack" played. Victor watched its progress with great interest, pleased with the thought that he had, by chance, come in contact with one of those solitary men who are sometimes known in the Australian Bush as "real characters."

"By the Great Llama,note Jack has won!" said the player, as he faced the last card.

"I hope that does not mean you lose a great deal?"

"Well, perhaps not. It just means that I may go on to Colmar to-morrow; that is, Sunday. I made a bet with Jack on the


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subject."

"Sunday? No–to-day is Sunday."

"You must be mistaken."

"Indeed I am not. Yesterday was Saturday–to-day is Sunday."

The man with a perplexed look counted on his fingers.

"Monday I gave up fossicking; Tuesday I came here; Wednesday I went to the little shanty at Starvation Creek, where they sell grog on the sly; Thursday I returned with a furious headache and a few bricks for the pavement of hell;note Friday I went across to see Van Diemen's Nick;note and Saturday, that is to-day, I sank an experimental trench till three o'clock, and broke a shovel. In face of such an alibi, how can you explain your method of counting the days?"

"Perhaps you will be angry at my explanation," said Victor, laughing.

"Anger is a moral luxury in which I have long ceased to indulge. Let us have your explanation."

" "The next time I get drunk it shall be with those who have the fear of God in them."note That carries my opinion of the alibi."

The man's face slowly relaxed into a smile, and he looked at his visitor with some interest.

"You young rascal!" he said, in a tone of amusement; "you think because you get tipsy yourself with boon companions, that a man of my standing indulges in the same weakness. . . . Perhaps you are right about the day. I suppose you've lived all your life in places crowded with the human species, where you knock every day into hours full of appointments, with men who cheat you and women who deceive you. I slung upnote that form of being happy many years ago."

"And notein the meantime you lose a Sunday occasionally, and find Jack stealing a march on you. But do you think he won this game fairly, seeing that to-morrow is Monday?" said Victor, who longed to glean more information regarding the habits of the partner who was not visible to the material eye.

But the man did not at once reply. He went to the fire, and pushing the smouldering sticks together till they burst into a flame, he put a copper saucepan half full of coffee on the fire.


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Then he produced a second pannikin and handed it to Victor, nearly full of that beverage, very strong and of excellent flavour.

"Did you see anyone at work on your way here," he asked, as he relit his pipe and resumed his seat. "An old man, for instance, with a battered profile, as if people had been shying stones at him for half a century?"

"I saw no one since I left Colmar till I came here."

"What! did you come from Colmar, from the mine?"

"Yes; I'm living there at present; I'm purser at the mine."

"The purser? By Jove! you don't look much like it."

"I give you my word that I can add two and two at the first shot," said Victor with a smile.

"Oh, I don't doubt it! But why a young fellow like you should be at the Colmar bothers me. I should have thought you would at least be feeling pretty down on your luck, instead of which you go about with violet eyes, and a smile that embraces all creation."note

"It must be your very good coffee that's getting into my head if I look so benevolent."

"Ah, you find the coffee good? I'll give you the recipe for making it. Get the best Arabian beans; green, mind you. Roast them till they are quite brown, but not black. Then take two handfuls and bruise them between two stones. Put that amount to two pints of water in a copper saucepan, and let the water come to boiling-point slowly without the lid. That's the way the M'zabites of El-Aghouatnote made coffee when I lived in Sahara for some time, several years ago. But now tell me about the Colmar. Who is robbing that mine now for the shareholders?"

"No one, I hope," answered Victor. "Do you know much about the place?"

"I lived there six or seven months some time ago."

"Oh! I wonder if you are the man Searle spoke about?"

"By the name of Oxford Jim?"

"Yes."

"The same. Has Searle gone away?"

"Yes; I came in his place."

"And who is the manager now?"

"Mr. William Trevaskis."

"You don't mean that!" said the man with a start. "William Trevaskis, eh? The last time I had the honour of seeing him he was rolling to Government House in a carriage lined with violet


  ― 172 ―
velvet, or something of that kind. Back to the old life, eh? Well, that is a piece of news!"

"But how is it you didn't hear it before, living within ten miles of the mine?"

"Because I have for the last three months been not living, but hiding, like the modest peony;note burrowing little shafts, turning over gravel drift in dry tributaries of the sandy Broombush Creek, most of the time two miles from here, where no man comes. Excepting Van noteDiemen's Nick–my friend with the battered phiz–I have not spoken to a soul for eleven weeks, till you came to-day."

"For eleven weeks entirely alone! Why, it's like solitary confinement!" said Victor, looking round at the eerie desolation of the great neutral-tinted plain, which, in the declining light of the afternoon sun, assumed more and more the look of a limitless ocean without sound or colour or movement.

"Yes–solitary confinement with hard labour thrown in. And yet most likely six months from this, when I am spending my nuggets, eating the husks which the swine did eat,note I shall be sorry I left the Salt-bush country."

"Your nuggets? Then you have found gold?"

"Oh, a little more than the colour,"note answered Oxford Jim, with a satisfied laugh, and glancing behind him under the cart. Victor looked also, but all he could see were a few ordinary digger's tools, a roughly constructed cradle, a shovel or two, a pick, and two rusty notedishes. But somehow the conviction grew on him that the solitary prospector had turned up trumps.

"Yes; a little more than the colour," he went on, still smoking. His pipe had a very deep bowl, and the smoke, which ascended in blue spiral columns, seemed to Victor to have an acrid odour, foreign to ordinary tobacco.

"But what is gold to a man like me, an exile, an outcast, with a hateful past and no possible future; with every chance in life exhausted, every avenue closed? Someone says that each man bears his own tragedy about with him.note I know what mine is, well."

A vague look had come into the man's eyes, but there was a sort


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of mild exaltation in his face, and notwithstanding the melancholy despair of his utterances, he seemed to find a certain enjoyment in giving them expression.

"You are too much alone, you are morbid in consequence," said Victor, who was touched by the thought of the man's dreary isolation.

"Morbid! Good Lord! what can make you as morbid as your fellow-creatures, when you begin to understand them? Snakes and dingoes and lizards are amiable sentimentalists in comparison with the bulk of mankind."

Victor could not refrain from laughing.

"For my own part," he said, "I should like to be spared the amiable weakness of a carpet snake!"

"Oh, as for that, a carpet snake is a harmless worm, compared to your own kind of both sexes. He does not come to you with a smiling face till he gets a good opportunity to sting you. Ah, you may smile; you'll find it out for yourself one day. Now, take that man Trevaskis as an instance. I worked with him, for a year and a half, fifteen years ago. He was making money fast, and had thousands of pounds invested. I said to him one day, "I wonder why you keep on working like this when you have so much."

" "Oh," he said, "I made up my mind when I was quite a boy that I would make enough money somehow or other to live like a gentleman; and I mean to do it. None of your poky, stingy little incomes, but something substantial and handsome." "

"Poor old chap! it's rather rough on him to have lost noteall his money, after all."

"Yes; but my feeling is that, on the whole, it served him right," said Oxford Jim vindictively. "When he said that to me, I said half jokingly: "Wouldn't it be a good thing to learn to speak like a gentleman, Bill, before you come on noteto the stage as a man of money and fashion?" He took up the idea quite seriously there and then. "Suppose you give me lessons," he said, "in pronouncing and writing? I'll pay you well for it." I didn't want to make a money affair of the matter. Indeed, I thought it would drop through in a month or so. But no, he was too determined. I never saw a man that stuck to any plan in all my life as he did, once his mind was made up. Every evening during a whole year he


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worked away for hours like a nigger; and then he would get up by candle-light and study again, writing out pages of dictation. Of course we grew very chummy in that time. I used to vary my lessons, in pronouncing and spelling, by telling him of the ways of living among the civilized races of the earth, developing his conceptions of society, as if I were a sort of unedited Manual of Etiquette."note

Here, the speaker suddenly burst into laughter.

"If you don't know much of the vagaries of Bush life," he said, "this may serve as a specimen for you. A man of fifty-five who grubs about in the wilds as a labouring drudge, and has lived the life of a wandering savage for over twenty years, can still give instruction in the social ethics of society."

He had ceased smoking, and his utterance was now a little heavy.

"Then what was the upshot?" asked Victor.

"The upshot was that when I returned, after being in Africa and the East, some time ago, I drifted to Adelaide on my way to Blanchewater.note Five years ago I saw Trevaskis face to face, in his rôle of gentleman–I, as usual, a poor devil in dusty clothes on the dusty highway–and–he cut me dead."

"Surely he couldn't have known you?"

"Oh yes, he did; I caught his eye. Well, I believe I'll take the change out of him yet. I'm at a loose end just now. I want to wait for an old friend of mine who is coming down from the Far North.note I might as well stay at Colmar–better than going to town, indeed. I'll most likely trundle across to-night or to-morrow. You won't be gone before then?"

"Oh no. You see, I have an interest in the Colmar Mine, and––"

"Oh, you have an interest in it, have you? Then just let me tell you a little secret," said the man, with a sudden gleam of excitement, overcoming a drowsiness which began gradually to make itself apparent in his voice and manner. "Search the cave room well."

"Oh, it was well searched by the late manager––"

"Dunning, the man who was killed, you mean. Ah, I know a little about the sort of search he was making. Never mind, you take my advice. Tell Trevaskis you met an old man prospecting out at Broombush Creek, who advised you to turn over the floor


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of notethat cave room, with a passage between it and the manager's office. Don't tell him it was Oxford Jim who gave the advice, and don't let him search it alone!"

"Perhaps we had better have a couple of policemen to look after us both," said Victor, in a jesting tone.

"Oh no, you haven't been long enough in the world, or in the gold business, to acquire the usual morals. . . . But there is a scientific classification of liars that I should advise you to keep in mind–the simple liar, the damned liar, and the mining manager,"note answered the man sombrely.

"Well, good-bye! I expect I'll see you again, though I should do better to stay in the Salt-bush country than mix with the human race," he added, when Victor rose to go.

The sun was low on the horizon as he rode back to the mine, his mind full of speculations regarding the lonely prospector. How had he come to have such a profound sentiment of the inutility of life, to be so penetrated with the conviction that henceforth nothing could change the course of his own existence, or make the world a fascinating place to live in? The thought that a human being could be so joyless and stranded, and perhaps, too, the solitary desolation of the country around him, gave the young man an unusual feeling of depression. But as he passed Stonehouse a curious glow of gladness stole over him, and his ride appeared to him in the light of an interesting event, one that might lead to the discovery of an unsuspected treasure.

Next day he and Trevaskis were engaged together in cleaning up the fortnight's yield of gold. Before the day was over, the gruff coldness of the manager's manner had thawed a little. He began to suspect that he might be doing the purser an injustice in supposing that he had any motive in coming to the mine beyond that of wishing to get a little experimental knowledge as to the working of a property in which he was interested. He worked so cheerfully, was so much interested in everything, sang snatches of "Rory O'More" and "Rich and rare were the gems she wore,"note and countless other songs, in such a clear, blithe voice, and repeated some of Mick's stories with such an inimitable accent, that almost in spite of himself Trevaskis was drawn into a more genial frame of mind.




  ― 176 ―

"I think you must have notehad an extra love-letter to-day, Fitz-Gibbon, you are in such good spirits," he said jokingly as they were in the assay-room, after taking off the crucible in which the gold had been smelted. Victor coloured consciously. He had felt like a bird on the wing all day, because he was to spend the evening at Stonehouse. Yes, this was all that had come of the stoical resolution which on Sunday had led him to explore the wilds so as to keep out of the way of temptation. It is one thing, however, to do this on a given day, and quite another to remain inflexible during succeeding ones.

"Me get a love-letter! I'm surprised at you, captain, to be putting such notions into my head," he answered gravely. Trevaskis laughed incredulously. Then it struck Victor that this would be a good opportunity to ask permission to search the cave room.

"Did you ever turn over that cave room at the end of the iron passage?" he asked somewhat suddenly.

Trevaskis, who well remembered the narrative told by Searle regarding this place, replied in a somewhat strained voice:

"No; I have not felt much tempted by the look of the place. A lot of Dunning's things are there; and old machinery with other odds and ends. Why do you ask?"

"Because, when I was out riding yesterday I came across an old fellow prospecting all alone, who––"

"Told you there was some gold hidden away there?" interrupted Trevaskis, with a scornful smile.

"Perhaps you've heard the yarn before?"

"Oh, I've never been near a mine in my life without hearing four and twenty lying rumours about it."

"Would you mind my fossicking over the place some day when it's convenient?"

Trevaskis' face darkened a little, and he hesitated before replying:

"Do you mean to dig in it? to look for a lode, or what?"

"Oh, just to make a thorough search, with Mick to help me when he isn't busy, or 'Zilla Jenkins when he returns. . . . I would be careful not to injure the place. Anything that's in it of value––"




  ― 177 ―

"Of value? I think the most precious article in it is an invalid chair. One of the managers broke his leg, and used to be trundled about in it; so Roby told me when I went down there with him the other day to look at some old machinery. . . . If there are many of Dunning's things, you might have them removed into one of the store-rooms."

"Thank you; that could be easily managed," said Victor, taking this as a grudging consent. "I'll begin my search, say, on Monday next."

"You betternote have 'Zilla to help when he returns; he'll be a handy man in a job of that kind," answered Trevaskis, in a more gracious voice.

But though in contact with Victor that day his suspicious mistrust of him had lessened, yet as soon as they parted he returned to his old standpoint.

"What should he want to go fossicking about in that place for? Perhaps to make sure that the late manager's belongings are not tampered with, or something of that kind," he thought, with a sombre look in his face.

It was partly the inflexibility of his mind and partly the invincible suspicion of his nature which made it almost impossible for him to renounce a prejudice or an evil opinion once entertained. It was characteristic, too, that the lower motives of conduct always appeared to him more credible than any noteothers.

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