Images de page
[graphic][subsumed][subsumed][merged small]

I found him-shut out apparently-standing before his door, looking very guilty and sheepish.

“What have you been doing to Rawy, Dick?” I cried sternly, striking at once at the head of the matter, for my suspicions were now fully confirmed.

“I met him crying like a child."

For a moment or two the big bearded fellow stood scraping the earth into a little heap with the side of his boot.

At length he said sulkily, his face looking very like that of a naughty child, “I said I'd knock the stuffing out o' him if I catched him hangir round here again."

I dared not trust myself to speak, and without further word turned on my heel and began the descent.

Presently I heard him coming heavily down the track after me.

Once I looked back. He had closed the fingers of his left hand, making a fist of it, and was shaking his head at it in a very fierce way.

A few paces more, and he called out: “Did yer say he was blubbering ? " “ As if to break his heart." “Poor little beggar!”

Not another word was spoken until we reached the mill. He followed me into the amalgamating room, silently watched me squeeze some amalgam through a piece of chamois leather, and, keeping close to my heels, came out again after me and stood at my side as I examined the “tables.” Once or twice, peeping at him out of the tail of my eye, I saw him lift his hand and gravely shake his head at it, as if he were reproving a forward child.

I was stooping over the distributing plate to see if the quicksilver was lively when he bent down and trumpeted in my ear-for the noise made by the stampers was deafening—“He was blubbering, was he?"

“ Sobbing like a woman,” I shouted back.

After certain convulsive motions of his arms and twitchings of his face, the reason for which I was no wise able to guess, he dived his hand into his pocket, pulled out a greasy one-pound note, and, growing somewhat red, thrust it into my hand, saying, in a voice I would not have recognised as his, "Give the little beggar that.”

He left no time for any answer.

The next few days were cold and rainy : the hills were blotted out with lowering clouds; the creek ran a banker”; the roads were in an awful state ; it was impossible to get any quartz down from the reefs, and the mill was at a standstill.

One miserable evening I floundered down to the beach to look in at the Diggers' Rest”—the one “hotel” on the Creek, and the sort of theatre of the diggings, to which any one, who had nothing better to do, repaired-to see what was going on.

At first, on entering the bar, I was able to see nothing in the foul place but the thick and yellowish coils of a heavy cloud of tobacco smoke.

As my eyes became accustomed to it, the dull light of a kerosene lamp showed me a goodly muster of the more dissolute among the diggers. The presence of a negro, who was sitting on a bucket turned upside down, and of Chow Lee, a Chinese tail-race sluicer, who was squatting tailor-wise on the floor, added a generous and cosmopolitan air to the gathering. Dick, I am sorry to say, was also of the number. To a man they were sunk back upon their seats, depressed and taciturn. From time to time one of them would bestir himself and call querously for “ drinks all round”; but the order exercised no charm of expectancy upon the gathering. The landlord, obsequious enough when the men had money in their pockets, displayed, now, a remarkable obstinacy in refusing to answer.

The pound note which Dick had given me must have come nigh being his last. I had it, even then, in my pocket, but I did not consider it a favourable opportunity to restore it.

Once Dick caught my eye, but looked away instantly, and, taking on an air of abstraction, gazed with an assumption of interest, which I am sure he was far srom feeling, at a water bottle on the counter.

Without knowing exactly why, I laughed, but instantly checked myself in obedience to other considerations. The fact that the company were temporarily unable to

[graphic][subsumed][merged small]

command the price of a drink rendered the occasion far too serious a one to permit of any indulgence in hilarity.

For a time nothing was heard but the pattering of rain and the splash and gurgle of water; then, in the twinkling of an eye, the bar was filled with bustle and hubbub.

The Duchess, seething with rage, had swept into the room like a gust of wind. She stood for a moment—one hand pressed against her heaving bosom as if to steady her breath, while with the other she flung back the cataract of rich dark hair which was streaming over her face and shoulders—and then, addressing Dick, cried, in a voice which came with startling force, although we had awaited her speech, “Go home, you dog!”

No man worthy the name can be expected tamely to submit to being called a "dog," and it was with no surprise that I heard Dick retaliate with an opprobrious appellation which possesses equally exasperating properties for women. Nor did his revolt end here. In strange opposition to his usual phlegm, the easy, indulgent soul was showing himself, for once in his life, to be strong. He continued to gaze hard at the Duchess with an expression of something like defiance in his soft blue eyes, indicative of a state of mind not to be trified with.

The woman was momentarily staggered, and there followed a brief interval of intense silence. The lull, however, was unnatural, and seemed to threaten danger. We felt that instinctively; and the faces about me—and my own, I doubt notexpressed nothing but vague alarm.

The strain had become quite painful, when it was snapped by a somewhat ludicrous and wholly unforeseen development. With the swiftness of a bird scuttling out of a bush, Rawy darted into the bar, and glanced fearfully round upon the assemblage with a look which seemed humbly to appeal for peace.

As he stood there, timid and embarrassed, nervously pushing back the silken curls which the wind and the rain had brought rioting about his smooth forehead and small round ears, there was not one of us who was not more or less affected by the sight. Even the truculence of the Duchess was softened for a moment.

Of a sudden- I happened to be watching him-Dick's eyes seemed to fill with a strange sparkling light. He rubbed his hands, as if vastly pleased with some thought which had struck him, and winked at me by stealth ; then, jumping to his feet, he turned to the wall and, slapping his legs, went off into a peal of boisterous mirth, which so shook the glasses on the shelves that they too seemed to be quaking with suppressed laughter.

We looked on in a sort of admiring horror, for the boldness of the man, considering the ugly look which was rising in the shallow black eyes of the Duchess, was strikingly remarkable.

Presently he turned, and said, with his usual drawl, though his voice seemed to have a chuckle hidden in it somewhere: “Rawy, my lad, I'm going to make yer a sporting offer. Ye've been riding a waiting race lately, and now's yer chance to come out and win, pulling double, with yer ears pricked. I'm more for the bucket than the manger to-night, but I'm stoney broke. Now, if ye're sport enough to stump up for a bottle of rum, I'll pull out o' the race.”

A few of the bolder spirits ventured to laugh at this covert way of "knocking the Duchess kite-high "—to employ Raspberry's way of putting it—but when the foolish boy, taking Dick's banter seriously, nailed his words to the counter, the general roar was loud and long.

Even Chow Lee, displaying a deeper and wider perception of the ludicrous than the Celestial is usually credited with, saw the humour of it. Doubling himself up with spasms of silent laughter, he jabbered volubly: “ Wellee good! Wellee, wellee good! Allee same Jappee-man sell-um wifee !”

The next second the Duchess was upon him. Before any one had drawn a breath, she had seized him by his pigtail, yanked him to the floor, kicked him in front, kicked him behind, and offered, for twopence, to kick him into a region in which Satan, despite climatic disadvantages, is popularly supposed to enjoy most vigorous health-only she expressed the locality in one emphatic monosyllable.

Scrambling to his feet, Chow Lee made for the door-I never saw any one in such a hurry to get out of a room-and, half turning as he gained the threshold, VOL. VIII.—No. 33.


[graphic][merged small]

threw over his shoulder at the lady the following most ungentlemanly remark: “Me tinkee you too muchee plenty hellee !”

No one dared laugh. The Duchess, her passionate breast heaving with her recent struggles, stood, with her back curved to the necessary segment for a spring, snarling horribly, and darting a fiery glance from one to the other with animal swiftness.

We sat perfectly still, wondering what would happen next, each one of us prepared for the worst.

In a few seconds she commenced pacing the room with wild gestures, clasping

« PrécédentContinuer »