THE GOLD STEALERS
By Edward Dyson
THE schoolhouse at Waddy was not in the least like any of the trim State buildings that now decorate every Victorian township and mark every mining or agricultural centre that can scrape together two or three meagre classes; it was the result of a purely local enthusiasm, and was erected by public subscription shortly after Mr. Joel Ham, B.A., arrived in the district and let it be understood that he did not intend to go away again. Having discovered that it was impossible to make anything else of Mr. Joel Ham, Waddy resolved to make a schoolmaster of him. A meeting was held in the Drovers' Arms, numerous speeches, all much more eloquently expressive of the urgent need of convenient scholastic institutions than the orators imagined, were delivered by representative men, and a resolution embodying the determination of the residents to erect a substantial building and install Mr. J. Ham, B.A., as headmaster was carried unanimously.
The original contributors were not expected to donate money towards the good cause; they gave labour and material. The work of erection was commenced next day. Neither plans nor specifications were supplied, and every contributor was his own architect. Timber of all sorts and shapes came in from fifty sources. The men of the day shift at the mines worked at the building in the evening; those on the four-o'clock shift put in an hour or two in the morning, and mates off the night shift lent a hand at any time during the day, one man taking up the work where the other left off. Consequently—and as there was no ruling mind and no general design—the school when finished seemed to lack continuity, so to speak. As an architectural effort it displayed evidence of many excellent intentions, but could not be called a brilliant success as a whole—although one astute Parliamentary candidate did secure an overwhelming majority of votes in Waddy after declaring the schoolhouse to be an ornament to the township. The public-spirited persons who contributed windows, it was tacitly agreed, were quite justified in putting in those windows according to the dictates of their own fancy, even if the result was somewhat bizarre. Jock Summers gave a bell hung in a small gilded dome, and this was fixed on the roof right in the centre of the building, mainly for picturesque effect; but as there was no rope attached and no means of reaching the bell—and it never occurred to anybody to rectify the deficiency—Jock's gift remained to the end merely an ornamental adjunct. So also with Sam Brierly's Gothic portico. Sam expended much time and ingenuity in constructing the portico, and it was built on to the street end of the schoolhouse, although there was no door there, the only entrance being at the back.
The building was opened with a tea-fight and a dance, and answered its purpose very well up to the time of the first heavy rains; then studies had to be postponed indefinitely, for the floor was a foot under water. A call was made upon the united strength of the township, and the building was lifted bodily and set down again on piles. When the open space between the ground and the floor was boarded up, the residents were delighted to find that the increased height had given the structure quite an imposing appearance. Alas! before six months had passed the place was found to be going over on one side. Waddy watched this failing with growing uneasiness. When the collapse seemed inevitable, the male adults were again bidden to an onerous public duty; they rolled up like patriots, and with a mighty effort pushed the school up into the perpendicular propping it there with stout stays. That answered excellently for a time, but eventually the wretched house began to slant in the opposite direction. Once more the men of Waddy attended in force, and spent an arduous half-day hoisting it into an upright position, and securing it there with more stays. It took the eccentric building a long time to decide upon its next move; then it suddenly lurched forward a foot or more, and after that slipped an inch or two farther out of plumb every day. But the ingenuity of Waddy was not exhausted: a few hundred feet of rope and a winch were borrowed from the Peep o' Day; the rope was run round the schoolhouse, and the building was promptly hauled back into shape and fastened down with long timbers running from its sides to a convenient red-gum stump at the back. Thus it remained for many years, bulging at the sides, pitching forward, and straining at its tethers like an eager hound in a leash.
It was literally a humming hot day at Waddy; the pulsing whirr of invisible locusts filled the whole air with a drowsy hum, and from the flat at the back of the township, where a few thousand ewes and lambs were shepherded amongst the quarry holes, came another insistent droning in a deeper note, like the murmur of distant surf. No one was stirring: to the right and left along the single thin wavering line of unpainted weatherworn wooden houses nothing moved but mirage waters flickering in the hollows of the ironstone road. Equally deserted was the wide stretch of brown plain, dotted with poppet legs and here and there a whim, across the dull expanse of which Waddy seemed to peer with stupid eyes.
From within the school were heard alternately, with the regularity of a mill, the piping of an old cracked voice and the brave chanting of a childish chorus. Under the school, where the light was dim and the air was decidedly musty, two small boys were crouched, playing a silent game of 'stag knife.' Besides being dark and evil-smelling under there, it was damp; great clammy masses of cobweb hung from the joists and spanned the spaces between the piles. The place was haunted by strange and fearsome insects, too, and the moving of the classes above sent showers of dust down between the cracks in the worn floor. But those boys were satisfied that they were having a perfectly blissful time, and were serenely happy in defiance of unpropitious surroundings. They were 'playing the wag,' and to be playing the wag under any circumstances is a guarantee of pure felicity to the average healthy boy.
Probably the excessive heat had suggested to Dick Haddon the advisability of spending the afternoon under the school instead of within the close crowded room; at any rate he suggested it to Jacker McKnight, commonly known as Jacker Mack, and now after an hour of it the boys were still jubilant. The game had to be played with great caution, and conversation was conducted in whispers when ideas could not be conveyed in dumb show. All that was going on in the room above was distinctly audible to the deserters below, and the joy of camping there out of the reach of Joel Ham, B.A., and beyond all the trials and tribulations of the Higher Fifth, and hearing other fellows being tested, and hectored, and caned, was too tremendous for whisperings, and must be expressed in wild rollings and contortions and convulsive kicking.
'Parrot Cann, will you kindly favour me with a few minutes on the floor?'
It was the old cracked voice, flavoured with an ominous irony. Dick paused in the middle of a throw with a cocked ear and upturned eyes; Jacker Mack grinned all across his broad face and winked meaningly. They heard the shuffling of a pair of heavily shod feet, and then the voice again.
'Parrot, my man, you are a comedian by instinct, and will probably live to be an ornament to the theatrical profession; but it is my duty to repress premature manifestations of your genius. Parrot, hold out!
They heard the swish of the cane and the school master's sarcastic comments between the strokes.
'Ah-h, that was a beauty! Once more, Parrot, my friend, if you please. Excellent! Excellent! We will try again. Practice of this kind makes for perfection, you know, Parrot. Good, good—very good! If you should be spoiled in the making, Parrot, you will not in your old age ascribe it to any paltry desire on my part to spare the rod, will you, Parrot?'
'S'help me, I won't, sir!
There was such a world of pathos in the wail with which Parrot replied that Dick choked in his efforts to repress his emotions. The lads heard the victim blubbing, and pictured his humorous contortions after every cut—for Parrot was weirdly and wonderfully gymnastic under punishment—and Jacker hugged himself and kicked ecstatically, and young Haddon bowed his forehead in the dirt and drummed with his toes, and gave expression to his exuberant hilarity in frantic pantomime. The rough and ready schoolboy is very near to the beginnings; his sense of humour has not been impaired by over-refinement, but remains somewhat akin to that of the gentle savage; and although his disposition to laugh at the misfortunes of his best friends may be deplorable from various points of view, it has not been without its influence in fashioning those good men who put on a brave face in the teeth of tribulation.
'Gee-rusalem! ain't Jo got a thirst?' whispered Dick when the spasm had passed.
'My oath, ain't he!' replied Jacker, 'but he was drunk up afore twelve.'
It is necessary to explain here that the school committee, in electing Mr. Ham to the position of schoolmaster, compelled him to sign a formal agreement, drawn up in quaint legal gibberish, in which it was specified that 'the herein afore-mentioned Joel Ham, B.A.,' was to be limited to a certain amount of alcoholic refreshment per diem, and McMahon, at the Drovers' Arms, bound himself over to supply no more than the prescribed quantity; but it was understood that this galling restriction did not apply to Mr. Ham on Saturdays and holidays.
The noises above subsided into the usual school drone, and the boys under the floor resumed their game. It was an extremely interesting game, closely contested. Each player watched the other's actions with an alert and suspicious eye, and this want of confidence led directly to the boys' undoing; for presently Dick detected Jacker in an attempt to deceive, and signalled 'Down!' with an emphatic gesture. 'Gerrout!' was the word framed by the lips of the indignant Jacker. Haddon gesticulated an angry protest, and McKnight's gestures and grimaces were intended to convey a wish that he might be visited with unspeakable pains and penalties if he were not an entirely virtuous and grievously misjudged small boy.
'It's a lie,' hissed Dick; 'it was down!
'You're another—it wasn't!
''Twas, I tell you!'
'Gimme my knife; I don't play with sharps an' sneaks.'
All caution had been forgotten by this time, voices were shrill, and eyes spoke of battle. Dick made at Jacker with a threatening fist, and Jacker, with an adroitness for which he was famous, met him with a clip on the shin from a copper-toed boot. Then the lads grappled and commenced a vigorous and enthusiastic battle in the dirt and amongst the cobweb curtains.
In the schoolroom above Joel Ham, startled from a dreamy drowsiness, heard with wonder fierce voices under his feet, the sounds of blows and of bumping heads, and saw his scholars all distracted. The master divined the truth in a very few minutes.
'Cann, Peterson, Moonlight,' he called, 'follow me.'
He selected a favourite cane from the rack, and strutted out with the curious boys at his heels.
'Now then, Peterson,' he said, and he paused with artful preoccupation to double his cane over and under, and critically examine the end thereof, 'you are a very observant youth, Peterson; you will tell me how those boys got under the school.'
'Dunno,' said Peterson, assuming the expression of an aged cow.
The master seized him by the collar.
'Peterson, you have the faculty of divination. I give you till I have counted ten to exert it. I am counting, Peterson.'
Very often the schoolmaster's language was Greek to the scholars, but his meaning was never in doubt for a moment.
'Eight, Peterson, nine.'
Peterson slouched along a few yards, and kicked stupidly and resentfully at a loose board.
'Might 'a' got in there,' he growled. 'Why couldn't you 'a' asked Moonlight?—he don' mind bein' a sneak.'
But Mr. Ham was down on his knees removing the loose board, and for two or three minutes after crouched at the opening like a famished yellow cat at a rat-hole, awaiting his opportunity. Meanwhile the fight under the school was being prosecuted with unabated fury. Dick and Jacker gripped like twin bull-terriers, rolling and tumbling about in the confined space, careless of everything but the important business in hand. Suddenly Mr. Ham made his spring, and a smart haul brought a leg to light. Another tug, and a second leg shot forth.
'Pull, boys!' he cried.
Moonlight seized the other limb, and a good tug brought the two boys out into the open, still fighting enthusiastically and apparently oblivious of their surroundings. Two soldier ants never fought with greater determination or with such a whole-souled devotion to the cause. Over and over they tumbled in the dust, clutching hair, hammering ribs, and grunting and grasping, blind, deaf, and callous as logs; and Joel Ham stood above them with the familiar cynical twist on his blotched visage, twisting his cane and making audible comments, but offering no further interference.
'After you, my boys—after you. There is no hurry, Haddon, I can wait as you are so busy. McKnight, your future is assured. The prize ring is your sphere: there wealth and glory await you. Peterson, you see here how degraded that boy be comes who forgets those higher principles which it is my earnest effort to instil into the hearts and minds of the boys of this depraved township. Cann, my boy, behold how brutalising is ungoverned instinct.'
But, wearying of the contest, the master made a sudden descent upon Jacker, and tore him from his enemy's grasp. The effort brought Dick to his feet, panting and still eager for the fray. He could not see an inch beyond his nose, and for a few moments moved about fiercely, feeling for his foe.
'D'you gimme best?' he spluttered. 'If you don't, come on—I ain't done up!' Then he flung the curtain of cobweb from his eyes, and the situation flashed upon him in all its grim significance. For a swift moment he thought of flight, but the master's grip was on his collar.
'Blowed if it ain't Jo,' he murmured in his consternation, and yielded meekly, like one for whom Fate had proved too strong.
The schoolmaster's white-lashed eyelids blinked rapidly for a second or so, and he screwed his face into a hard wrinkled grin of gratification.
'Yes, Ginger, my lad,' he said genially, 'Jo, at your service—very much at your service; and yours, McKnight. We will go inside now, boys. The sun is painfully hot, and you are fatigued.'
He marched his captives before him into the school room and ranged them against the wall, under the wide-open wondering eyes of the scholars, by whom even the most trifling incident of rebellion was always welcomed with glee as a break in the dull monotony of Joel Ham's peculiar system. But this was no trifling incident, it was a tremendous outrage and a delightful mystery; for the boys as they stood there presented to the amazed classes a strange and amazing spectacle, and were clothed in an original and, so far as the children were concerned, an inexplicable disguise. Fighting and tumbling about under the school house, Haddon and McKnight had gathered much mud, but more cobwebs. In fact, they had wiped up so many webs that they were covered from head to foot in the clammy dusty masses. Their hats were lost early in the encounter, and their hair was full of cobwebs; sticky curtains of cobweb hung about their faces, and swathed them from top to toe in what looked like a dirty grey fur. Each boy had cleared his eyes of the thick veil, but so inhuman and unheard of was their appearance that there was presently a suspicion amongst the scholars that the master had captured two previously unknown specimens of the animal kingdom, and consequently further astonishing developments might be looked for.
Mr. HAM, with wise forethought, carefully locked the door and pocketed the key after disposing of the lads; and this was well, for Dick Haddon, fully appreciating the possibilities of the situation, was already plotting—plotting with every faculty of an active and inventive mind.
The master faced his prisoners, and stood musing over them like a pensive but kindly cormorant. Mr. Joel Ham, B.A., was a small thin man with a deceitful appearance of weakness. There was a peculiar indecision about all his joints that made the certainty of his spring and the vigour of his grip matters of wonder to all those new boys who ventured to presume upon his seeming infirmities. He had a scraggy red neck, a long beak-like nose, and queer slate-coloured eyes with pale lashes; his hair was thin and very fine in colour and texture, strangely like that of a yellow cat; and face, neck, and nose were mottled with patches of small purple veins. To-day he was dressed in a long seedy black coat, a short seedy black vest, and a pair of now moleskins, glaringly white, and much too long and too large.
'Haddon,' said the master in a reflective tone, 'you are not looking as neat as usual. You need dusting. I will perform that kind office presently, and, believe me, I will do it well. Jacker, I intend to leave you standing here for a few moments to cool. You may have noticed, boys, that the youthful form when over-heated or possessed with unusual excitement has not that poignant susceptibility which might be thought necessary to the adequate appreciation of a judicious lambasting. Has that ever occurred to you, McKnight?'
Jacker shifted his feet uneasily, rolled his body, and, knowing that nothing could aggravate his offence, answered sullenly:
'Oh, dry up!'
Mr. Ham grinned at the boy in silence for a few moments, and then returned to his high stool and desk. Mr. Ham never made the slightest effort to maintain before his scholars that dignity which is supposed to be essential to the success of a pedagogue. In addressing the boys he used their correct names, or the nicknames liberally bestowed upon them by their mates, indiscriminately, and showed no resentment whatever when he heard himself alluded to as Jo, or Hamlet, or the Beetle, his most frequent appellations in the playground. He kept a black bottle in his desk, at the neck of which he habitually refreshed himself before the whole school; and he addressed the children with an elaborate and caustic levity in a thin shaky voice quite twenty years too old for him. His humour was thrown away upon the rising generation of Waddy, and might have been supposed to be the cat-like pawing of a vicious mind; but Joel Ham was not cruel, and although when occasion demanded he could use the cane with exceeding smartness, he frequently overlooked misdemeanours that might have justified an attack, and was never betrayed into administering unmerited cuts even when his black bottle was empty and his thirst most virulent.
In spite of his eccentricities and his weaknesses, and the fact that he was neither respected nor dreaded, Ham brought his scholars on remarkably well. There were three big classes in the room—first, third, and fifth—and a higher and lower branch of each; he managed all, with the assistance of occasional monitors selected from the best pupils. Good order prevailed in the school, for little that went on there escaped the master's alert eye. Even when he drowsed at his desk, as he sometimes did on warm afternoons, the work was not delayed, for he was known to have a trick of awakening with a jerk, and smartly nailing a culprit or a dawdler.
The school to-day was in a tense and excitable condition, now heightened to fever by the two cobwebbed mysteries standing against the wall, but the imperative rattle of Joel's cane on the desk quickly induced a specious show of industry.
The individual addressed, a big scholar in the Lower Third, was so absorbed in the spectacle provided by Haddon and McKnight that he failed to hear the master's voice, and continued staring stupidly with all his eyes.
'Gable! This way, my dear child.'
Gable started guiltily, and then fell into confusion. He climbed awkwardly, out of his seat, and advanced hesitatingly with shuffling feet towards the master. It was now evident that Gable was not a large boy, but a little old man, slightly built, with a round ruddy clean-shaven face and thick white hair. But his manner was that of a boy of eight.
'Hold out, my young friend!' Joel commanded, with an expressive flourish of his cane.
Gable held out his hand; his toothless mouth formed itself into a dark oval, his eyes distended with painful expectancy, and he assumed the shrinking attitude of the very small boy who expects the fall of the cane. The situation was absurd, but no one smiled. Ham raised the extended hand a little with the end of the dreaded weapon.
'You are going the right way to come to a dishonoured old age, Gable,' he said, and the cane went up, but the cut was not delivered. 'There,' continued the master, 'I forgive you in consideration of your extreme youth. Go to your place, and try to set a better example to the older boys.'
The old man trotted back to his seat, grinning all over his face, and set to work at his book with an appearance of intense zeal; and Joel Ham turned his attention to the prime culprits. Having marched the youngsters from the front desk of the third class, he drew desk and form forward into the middle of the clear space, and then beckoned to McKnight.
'Jacker, my man,' he said cheerfully, 'bring your slate and sit here. I have a little job for you.'
Dick, standing alone, watched his mate seat himself at the desk, elated for a moment with the idea that perhaps Jo was not going to regard their offence as particularly heinous after all; but his better judgment scouted the idea, and he returned to his scrutiny of the wall. There was a weak spot near where Hector, Peterson's billy-goat, had butted his way through on a memorable occasion, and escape was still a comforting contingency.
The master approached McKnight with a pencil as if to set a lesson, but this was merely a ruse; Jacker was a hard-headed vicious youth whose favourite kick Ham wisely reckoned with on an occasion like this. To the boy's surprise and disgust he was presently seized by the neck and hauled forward on to the desk. His legs, being against the seat, which was attached to the desk, were quite useless for defence, so that he was a helpless victim under the chastening rod. It was a degrading attitude, and the presence of the girls made the punishment a disgrace to rankle and burn. Jacker, for pride and the credit of his boyhood made no sound under the first dozen cuts; but his younger brother Ted, from his place in the Lower Fifth, set up a lugubrious wail of sympathy almost immediately, and, as his feelings were more and more wrought upon by the painful sight, his wailing developed into shrill and tearful abuse of the master.
'You let him alone, see!' yelled Ted, when Jacker, unable longer to contain himself, uttered a dismal cry.
'Hit some one yer size—go on, hit some one yer size!' screamed Ted.
But Mr. Ham's whole attention was devoted to his task, and the younger McKnight's threats, commands, and warnings were entirely ignored, although the boy continued to utter them between his heart broken sobs.
'Mind who you're hittin'! You'll suffer for this, Hamlet, you'll see! We'll get some one what'll show you! Rocks for you nex' Saterdee!
Ted howled, Jacker howled, but the master caned on until he thought he had quite accomplished his duty in that particular; then he let the limp youth slide back into his seat.
Mr. Ham returned to his high stool to rest and recuperate. Thoughout the proceedings he had displayed no heat whatever, and when he addressed Jacker it was with his usual bland irony.
'You should thank me for my pains, my boy, but youth is proverbially ungrateful. You will think better of my efforts a few years hence; meanwhile I can afford to wait for the verdict of your riper judgment, Jacker—I can afford to wait, my boy.'
Jacker's only reply to this was a long wail expressive of a great disgust. That outburst was too much for the already over-wrought youngster in the Lower Fifth; starting up with a cry, Ted snatched one of the leaden ink-wells from its cell in the desk, and took aim at the master's head. The well struck the wall just above its mark, and scattered its contents in Joel Ham's pale hair, in his eyes, down his cheeks, and all over his white moles. Amazement—blind, round-eyed, dumb amazement—possessed the school, and for a few seconds a dead silence prevailed. The spell was broken by Dick Haddon, who discovered his opportunity, plunged like a diver at the weak spot in the wall, went clean through and disappeared from view. Ted McKnight, who had awakened to the enormity of his crime at the sight of the master knuckling the ink out of his eyes, and had gone grey to the lips in his trepidation, looking anxiously to the right and left for a refuge, saw Dickie's departure; jumping the desk in front he rushed at the aperture the latter had left in the wall, and was gone in the twinkling of an eye.
The master mopped the ink from his hair and his face with a sheet of blotting paper, and calling Belman, Cann, Peterson, Jinks, and Slogan, made for the door. Already Dick Haddon was halfway across the flat, scattering the browsing sheep to the right and left in his flight, and Ted was following at his best pace.
'After them!' cried the master. 'Two whole days' holiday for you if you run them down.'
The pursuit was taken up cheerfully enough, but it was quite hopeless. The breakaways were heading for the line of bush, and the sapling scrub along the creek was so thick that the boys would have been perfectly secure under its cover, even if the pursuers were not in hearty sympathy with the pursued, and the pursuit were not a miserable and perfidious pretence.
Mr. Ham, recognising after a few minutes how matters really stood, returned to the school. His approach had been signalled by a scout at one of the windows, and he found the classes all in order and suspiciously industrious, and Jacker McKnight still sitting with his head sunk upon his arms—a monument of sturdy resentment.
'My boys,' said the master, looking ludicrously piebald after his ink bath, 'before resuming duties I wish to draw your attention to the crass foolishness of which our young friends Haddon and McKnight are guilty. You perceive that their action is not diplomatic, eh?'
'Ye—yes, sir,' piped a dubious voice here and there.
'To be sure. Had they remained they would have been caned; as they have run away, they will receive a double dose and certain extra pains and penalties, and meanwhile they suffer the poignant pangs of anticipation. Anticipation, Jacker, my boy, the smart of future punishments, is the true hell-flame.'
Jacker replied with a grunt of derisive and implacable bitterness, but the schoolmaster seemed much comforted by his apophthegm, and stood for several minutes surveying the back of McKnight's head, and wearing a benignant and thoughtful smile.
WADDY was soon possessed of the facts of the shameful acts of insubordination at the school and the escape of Dick Haddon and Ted McKnight, and nobody—according to everybody's wise assurances—was the least bit surprised. The fathers of the township (and the mothers, too) had long since given Dick up as an irresponsible and irreclaimable imp. One large section declared the boy to be 'a bit gone,' which was generally Waddy's simple and satisfactory method of accounting for any attribute of man, woman, or child not in conformity with the dull rule of conduct prevailing at Waddy. Another section persisted in its belief that 'the boy Haddon' was possessed with several peculiar devils of lawlessness and unrest, which could only be exorcised by means of daily 'hidings,' long abstinence from any diet more inflammatory than bread and water, and the continuous acquisition of great quantities of Scripture.
An extraordinary meeting of the School Committee was held at the Drovers' Arms that evening to confer with Joel Ham, B.A., and consider what was best to be done under the circumstances. The men of the township recognised that it was their bounden duty to support the master in an affair of this kind. When occasion arose they assisted in the capture of vagrant youths, and when Joel imagined a display of force advisable they attended at the punishment and rendered such assistance as was needful in the due enforcement of discipline. It was understood by all that the school would lose prestige and efficiency if Haddon and McKnight were not taken and at once subjected to the rules of the establishment and the rod of the master.
The meeting was quite informal. It was held in the bar, and the discussion of the vital matter in hand was concurrent with the absorption of McMahon's beer. Mr. Ham's best attention was given to the latter object.
'Bring the boys to me, gentlemen,' he said, 'and I will undertake to induce in them a wholesome contrition and a proper respect for letters—temporarily, at least.'
Neither of the lads had yet returned to his home; but the paternal McKnight promised, like a good citizen, that immediately his son was available he would be reduced to subjection with a length of belting, and then handed over to the will of the scholastic authority without any reservation. Mr. McKnight was commended for his public spirit; and it was then agreed that a member of the Committee should wait upon Widow Haddon to invite her co-operation, and point out the extent to which her son's mental and moral development would be retarded by a display of weakness on her part at a crisis of this kind?
Mr. Ephraim Shine volunteered for this duty. Ephraim was a tall gaunt man, with hollow cheeks, a leathery complexion, and large feet. He walked or sat with his eyes continually fixed upon these feet—reproachfully, it seemed—as if their disproportion were a source of perennial woe; he carried his arms looped behind him, and had acquired a peculiar stoop—to facilitate his vigilant guardianship of his feet, apparently. Mr. Shine, as superintendent of the Waddy Wesleyan Chapel, represented a party that had long since broken away from the School Committee, which was condemned in prayer as licentious and ungodly, and left to its wickedness when it exhibited a determination to stand by Joel Ham, a scoffer and a drinker of strong drinks, as against a respectable, if comparatively unlettered, nominee of the Chapel and the Band of Hope. His presence at the committee meeting to-night was noted with surprise, although it excited no remark; and his offer to interview the widow was accepted with gratitude as a patriotic proposal. There was only one dissentient—Rogers, a burly faceman from the Silver Stream.
'Don't send Shine to cant an' snuffle, an' preach the poor woman into a fit o' the miserables,' he said.
Ephraim lifted his patient eyes to Rogers's face for a moment with an expression of meek reproof, then let them slide back to his boots again, but answered nothing. The enmity of the two was well known in Waddy. Rogers was a worldly man who drank and swore, and who loved a fight as other men loved a good meal; and Shine, as the superintendent, must withhold his countenance from so grievous a sinner. Besides, there was a belief that at some time or another the faceman had thrashed Shine, who was searcher at the Stream in his week-day capacity, and for that reason was despised by the miners, and regarded as a creature apart. Ephraim, it was remarked, was always particularly careful in searching Rogers when he came off shift, in the hope, as the men believed, of one day finding a secreted nugget, and getting even with his enemy by gaoling him for a few years.
As Ephraim passed out from the bar he again allowed his eyes to roll up and meet those of his enemy from the dark shadow of his thick brows.
'Don't forget the little widow was sweet on Frank Hardy before you jugged him, Tinribs,' said the miner.
Tinribs was a name bestowed upon the superintendent by the youth of Waddy, and called after him by irreverent small boys from convenient cover or under the shelter of darkness. He found the Widow Haddon at home. She it was who answered his knock.
'I have come from the School Committee, ma'am,' he said, still intent upon his boots.
'About Dickie, is it? Come in.'
Mrs. Haddon was dressmaker-in-ordinary to the township, and her otherwise carefully tended kitchen was littered with clippings and bits of material. She resumed her task by the lamp a soon as the delegate of the School Committee was comfortably seated.
'Has Richard come home, ma'am?' Ephraim was an orator, and prided himself on his command of language.
The widow shook her head. 'No,' she said composedly. 'I don't think he will come home to-night.'
'We have had a committee meeting, missus,' said Ephraim, examining the toe of his left boot reproach fully, 'an' it's understood we've got to catch these boys.'
'What!' cried Mrs. Haddon, dropping her work into her lap. 'You silly men are going to make a hunt of it? Then, let me tell you, you will not get that boy of mine to-morrow, nor this week, nor next. Was ever such a pack of fools! Let Dickie think he is being hunted, and he'll be a bushranger, or a brigand chief, or a pirate, or something desperately wicked in that amazin' head of his, and you won't get a-nigh him for weeks, not a man Jack of you! Dear, dear, dear, you men—a set of interferin', mutton-headed creatures!
'He's an unregenerate youth—that boy of yours, ma'am.'
'Is he, indeed?' Mrs. Haddon's handsome face flushed, and she squared her trim little figure. 'Was he that when he went down the broken winze to poor Ben Holden? Was he that when he brought little Kitty Green and her pony out of the burnin' scrub? Was he all a little villain when he found you trapped in the cleft of a log under the mount there, when the Stream men wouldn't stir a foot to seek you?
During this outburst Shine had twisted his boots in all directions, and examined them minutely from every point of view.
'No, no, ma'am,' he said, 'not all bad, not at all; but—ah, the—ah, influence of a father is missing, Mrs. Haddon.'
'That's my boy's misfortune, Mr. Superintendent.'
'It—it might be removed.'
'Eh? What's that you say?'
The widow eyed her visitor sharply, but he was squirming over his unfortunate feet, and apparently suffering untold agonies on their account.
'The schoolmaster must be supported, missus,' he said hastily. 'Discipline, you know. Boys have to be mastered.'
'To be sure; but you men, you don't know how. My Dick is the best boy in the school, sometimes.'
'Sometimes, ma'am, yes.'
'Yes, sometimes, and would be always if you men had a pen'orth of ideas. Boys should be driven sometimes and sometimes coaxed.'
'And how'd you coax him what played wag under the very school, fought there, an' then broke out of the place like a burgerler?
'I know, I know—_that's bad; but it's been a fearful tryin' day, an' allowances should be made.'
'Then, if he comes home you'll give him over to be—ah, dealt with?'
'Certainly, superintendent; I am not a fool, an' I want my boy taught. But don't you men go chasm' those lads; they'll just enjoy it, an' you'll do no good. You leave Dickie to me, an' I'll have him home here in two shakes. Dickie's a high-spirited boy, an' full o' the wild fancies of boys. He's done this sort o' thing before. Run away from home once to be a sailor, an' slep' for two nights in a windy old tree not a hundred yards from his own comfortable bed, imaginin' he was what he called on the foretop somethin'. But I know well enough how to work on his feelings.'
'A father, ma'am, would be the savin' o' that lad.'
Mrs. Haddon dropped her work again and her dark eyes snapped; but Ephraim Shine had lifted one boot on to his knee, and was examining a hole in the sole with bird-like curiosity.
'When I think my boy needs special savin' I'll send for you, Mr. Shine—
'It'd be a grave responsibility, a trial an' a constant triberlation, but I offer myself. I'll be a father to your boy, ma'am, barrin' objections.'
'An' what is meant by that, Mr. Shine?'
The widow, flushed of face, with her work thrust forward in her lap and a steely light in her fine eyes, regarded the searcher steadily.
'An offer of marriage to yourself is meant, Mrs. Haddon, ma'am.'
Shine's eyes came sliding up under his brows till they encountered those of Mrs. Haddon; then they fell again suddenly. The little widow tapped the table impressively with her thimbled finger, and her breast heaved.
'Do you remember Frank Hardy, Ephraim Shine?'
'To be certain I do.'
'Well, man, you may have heard what Frank Hardy was to me before he went to—to—'
'To gaol, Mrs. Haddon? Yes.'
'Listen to this, then. What Frank Hardy was to me before he is still, only more dear, an' I'd as lief everybody in Waddy knew it.'
'A gaol-bird an' a thief he is.'
'He is in gaol, an' that may make a gaol-bird of him, but he is no thief. 'Twas you got him into gaol, an' now you dare do this.'
Shine's slate-coloured eyes slid up and fell again.
''Twas done in the way o' duty. He don't deny I found the gold on him.'
'No, but he denies ever havin' seen it in his life before, an' I believe him.'
'An' about that cunnin' little trap in his boot-heel, ma'am?'
'It was what he said it was—the trick of some enemy.'
Mr. Shine lifted his right boot as if trying its weight, groaned and set it down again, tried the other, and said:
'An' who might the enemy ha' been, d'ye think?'
I do not know, but—I am Frank Hardy's friend, and you may not abuse him in my house.'
'You have a chance o' a respectable man, missus.' Mrs. Haddon had risen from her seat and was standing over her visitor, a buxom black-gowned little fury.
'An' I tell him to go about his business, an' that's the way.' The gesture the widow threw at her humble kitchen door was magnificent. 'But stay,' she cried, although the imperturbable Shine had not shown the slightest intention of moving. 'You've heard I went with Frank's mother to visit him in the gaol there at the city; p'r'aps you're curious to know what I said. Well, I'll tell you, an' you can tell all Waddy from yon platform in the chapel nex' Sunday, if you like. 'Frank,' I said, 'you asked me to be your wife, an' I haven't answered. I do now. I'll meet you at the prison door when you come out, if you please, an' I'll marry you straight away.' Those were my very words, Mr. Superintendent, an' I mean to keep to them.'
Mrs. Haddon stood with flaming face and throbbing bosom, a tragedy queen in miniature, suffused with honest emotion. Ephraim sat apparently absorbed in his left boot, thrusting his finger into the hole in the sole, as if probing a wound.
'You wouldn't think, ma'am,' he said presently with the air of a martyr, 'that I gave fourteen-and six for them pair o' boots not nine weeks since.'
Mrs. Haddon turned away with an impatient gesture.
'If you've said all you have to say, you might let me get on with my work.'
'I think that's all, Mrs. Haddon.' The searcher arose, and stood for a moment turning up the toe of one boot and then the other; he seemed to be calculating his losses on the bargain. 'You hand over the boy Richard, I understand, ma'am?'
'I'll do what is right, Mr. Shine.'
'The Committee said as much. The Committee has great respect for you, Mrs. Haddon.'
Ephraim lifted his feet with an effort, and carried them slowly from the house, carefully and quietly closing the kitchen door after him. About half a minute later he opened the door again, just as carefully and as quietly, and said:
'Good night, ma'am, and God bless you.'
Then he went away, his hands bunched behind him, walking like a man carrying a heavy burden.
DICK HADDON and Ted McKnight were still at large next morning, and nothing was heard of them till two o'clock in the afternoon, when Wilson's man, Jim Peetree, reported having discovered the boys swimming in the big quarry in the old Red Hand paddock. Jim, seeing a prospect of covering himself with glory, made a dash after the truants; but they snatched up their clothes and ran for the saplings up the creek, all naked as they were, and Jim was soon out of the hunt—though he captured Ted's shirt, and produced it as a guarantee of good faith.
That night three boys—three of the faithful—Jacker McKnight, Phil Doon, and Billy Peterson, stole through Wilson's paddock carrying mysterious bundles, and taking as many precautions to avoid observation and pursuit as if they were really, as they pretended to be with the fine imagination of early boyhood, desperate characters bent upon an undertaking of unparalleled lawlessness and great daring. They crossed the creek and crept along in the shadow of the hill, for the moon, although low down in the sky, was still bright and dangerous to hunted outlaws. Off to the left could be heard the long-drawn respirations of the engines at the Silver Stream, and the grind of her puddlers, the splashing of the slurry, and the occasional solemn, significant clang of a knocker. They passed the old Red Hand shaft, long since deserted and denuded of poppet legs and engine-houses, its comparatively ancient tips almost overgrown and characterless, with lusty young gums flourishing amongst its scattered boulders. Waddy venerated the old Red Hand as something so ancient that its history left openings for untrammelled conjecture, and the boys associated it with not a few of the mysteries of those grand far-off ages when dragons abducted beautiful maidens and giants were quite common outside circuses. The mouth of the shaft was covered with substantial timbers, save for a small iron-barred door securely padlocked. The pit now served a useful purpose as air-shaft for the Silver Stream, and the iron-runged ladders still ran down into its black depths.
The boys kept to the timber, and presently found themselves climbing down the rugged rocks where the hillside suddenly became an abrupt wall. From here had been blasted the thousands of tons of rock that went to the building of that grim prison in Yarraman, the town where Frank Hardy lay, a good half-day's tramp across the wide flat country faced by the township The quarry, too, was overgrown again; being almost inaccessible to Wilson's cattle its undergrowth was rank and high, and as it was sheltered from the sun's rays and watered in part by a tiny spring, it was often the one green oasis in a weary land of crackling yellow and drab.
After gaining the bottom of the quarry, Jacker led the way to the deepest end. Here the bottom, covered with scrub growth, sloped rather suddenly for a few feet up to the abrupt wall. Going on his hands and knees under the thick odorous peppermint saplings, Jacker ran his head into a niche in the rock amongst climbing sarsaparilla, and remained so, like some strange geological specimen half embedded in the rock. Within, where his head was hidden, the darkness was impenetrable. Jacker blew a strange note on a whistle manufactured from the nut of an apricot, and after a few moments a light appeared below him, a feeble flame, far down in the rock. This was waved twice and then withdrawn.
'Righto!' said Jacker in a hoarse piratical tone. 'Gimme the tucker, Black Douglas; I'll go down. You coves keep watch, an' no talkin', mind.'
Phil grumbled inarticulately, and Jacker's tone became hoarser and more piratical still.
'Who's commandin' here?' he growled. 'D'ye mean mutiny?
'Oh, shut up!' said Doon, bitterly. 'No one's goin' t' mutiny, but there ain't no fun campin' here.'
'All right,' he said, 'come down if you wanter. S'pose you'll on'y be makin' some kind of a row 'f I leave you.'
Jacker put the growth aside carefully, and going feet first gradually disappeared. Within there in the formless darkness he stood upon a ladder made of the long stem of a sapling to which cleats were nailed. The sapling was suspended in a black abyss. The boy, with his bundle hanging from his shoulder, started down fearlessly. Presently he came to where a second prop was fastened to the first with spikes and strong rope. Here he paused a moment, and called:
'Hello, be-e-low there!'
Jacker's character had undergone a rapid change; he was now quite an innocent and law-abiding person, a working shareholder in the Mount of Gold Quartz-mining Company.
'On top!' answered a cautious voice from the depths.
'Look up—man on!
And now, having observed the formalities, Jacker continued his descent, and in a few moments dropped from the primitive ladder and found a footing on a few planks thrown from one drive to another, across what was really an old shaft. At his back was a drive running into darkness; before him was a small irregular excavation lit with a single candle, and sitting in this, dressed, or, more correctly, undressed, like miners at their work, were Dick Haddon and Ted McKnight.
Jacker threw his bundle on the floor of the drive.
'Crib,' he said carelessly; and then, after examining the face of the excavation: 'S'pose we ain't likely to cut the lode this shift, Dick?
Dick shook his head thoughtfully.
'No,' he said. 'Allowin' for the underlay, we should strike her about fifteen feet in.'
The other boys had now joined their mates. Each on his way down had gravely followed the example of Jacker, who was supposed to be the boss of the incoming shift. As the fathers labour their sons play, and for months these boys had been digging in this old mine, off and on, with enthralling mystery. The excavation in which Dick and Ted were seated represented the joint labour of the members of the Mount of Gold Quartz-mining Company, though the very existence of the mine was unknown to a single soul outside the juvenile syndicate.
On the surface all signs of the shaft had long since been obliterated. The quarrymen blasting into the side of the hill years back had made a small opening into the disused pit at some distance from the top, and this opening was accidentally discovered by Dick and Jacker one day during a hunt for a wounded rabbit. Investigation proved the mine to be of no great depth, and, thanks to the pumps of the Silver Stream, as dry as a bone. A company of reliable small boys was formed with exceeding caution and a fine observance of rule and precedent; for Dick Haddon did nothing by halves, and forgot nothing that might give an air of reality to the creations of his exuberant fancy.
The original intention of the Mount of Gold Quartz-mining Company was to strike a reef five yards wide, composed entirely of gold, and to overwhelm its various parents with contrition on account of past lambastings by making them suddenly rich beyond the dreams of Oriental avarice. Time had served to dim the ardour of its hopes in this direction; but the mine was still an enticing enterprise when exciting novelties in the way of adventure were wanting, and would always be a hiding-place in which a youthful fugitive from injustice might defy all authority so long as the members of the Company remained true to their oath. Now that oath was quite the most solemn and impressive thing of the kind that Dick Haddon and Phil Doon had been able to discover after consulting the highest literary authorities.
The quarrel between Dick and Jacker McKnight that originated under the school was quite forgotten in the resulting excitement. It was a mere incident in any case, and would have made no material difference in their friendship. It had not kept Jacker from visiting the Mount of Gold on the same night with information and supplies, and now the boy was cheerfully unconscious of the black eye that still ornamented his broad visage. There were two well-worn shovels and a miner's pick in the drive. Jacker seized the pick.
'Might as well put in a bit of work,' he said.
'Hold hard,' replied Dick, 'Smoke-ho, old man. What's goin' on on top?'
'Whips! They had a meetin' about youse last night—Jo, an' Rogers, an' my dad, an' ole Tinribs, an' the rest. They're all after you. You're fairly in fer it.'
Dick's face became radiant with magnificent ideas.
'What! You don't mean they're goin' t' form a band t' capture us?'
'Well, they sorter agreed about somethin' like that.'
'My word, that's into our hands, ain't it? Lemme see, we must be a band of bushrangers what's robbed the gold escort an' the mounted p'lice're huntin' us in the ranges. I'll be—yes, I'll be Morgan. An' Ted—! What'll we make Ted? I know—I know. He'll be my faithful black boy, what'll rather die than leave me. You fellers bring a cork to-morrow, an' we'll pretty quick make a faithful black boy of Twitter.'
All eyes were turned upon Ted, who did not seem in the least impressed by the magnificent prospect. Indeed, the faithful native was palpably out of sorts; he took no part in the enthusiasm of his mates, his face was pale, and funk was legible in the diffident eye he turned upon the company. Dick noted this and put in an artful touch or two.
'Jacky-Jacky, the faithful black boy,' he said; 'brave as a lion, an' the best shot in the world—better'n me!
The ruse was not successful. Ted failed to respond.
'Twitter don't seem to want to be no black boy,' said Phil.
'I'll be Jacky-Jacky,' volunteered Peterson eagerly.
Peterson was a stolid youth with a face like a wooden doll; absolutely reliable since he was as stubborn under adult rule as a whole team of unbroken bullocks, and quite reckless of consequences for the reason that he never anticipated them. Peterson would have made a most successful Jacky-Jacky, but his suggestion was overlooked in the general concern inspired by Ted's conduct.
Feeling the eyes of the party upon him, Ted grew more uneasy, the corners of his mouth drew down, one finger went up slowly, and Twitter began to snivel.
'I—I—w—wa—want to go home,' he said.
The mates looked at each other in amazement. Ted was little, but his pluck had been tried on many occasions, and this was a great surprise.
'Well, he's on'y a kiddy,' said Phil pityingly, and with the superiority two years may confer.
Dick found the three were looking to him for an explanation.
'Ted's real scared,' he said. 'We made a discovery this afternoon—in there.'
'In the big drive?' asked Jacker. The others looked startled.
Dick nodded, and took up the candle. 'Come an' see,' he said.
Dick led the way along the opposite drive, and his mates followed, not too eagerly, Ted bringing up the rear. The drive was about eighty feet in extent. Having reached the end, Dick held the candle low, and made visible to his wondering mates a black cavity about eighteen inches in diameter in one corner near the floor.
'We were workin' in here a bit for a change this afternoon after Peetree hunted us, an' I broke through.'
'What's in there?' asked Jacker in an awed voice.
'Look,' said Dick.
Jacker backed away; the other three kept a respectful distance and stared silently.
'It's on'y another drive,' Dick explained. 'It must come from the Red Hand, I think.'
Dick was quite undisturbed, but the others were afraid, and even when they had returned to their own drive cast many doubting glances back into the darkness. In the mine as they had known it before everything was definite, and there was nothing of which a boy of spirit need be afraid. The shaft was choked with dirt a few feet below their landing-planks, and there was no spot in which a mystery might lurk; but it was very different now with that black hole leading Heaven knew into what awesome depths, harbouring goodness knew what horrors. Ted's defection had suddenly become the sentiment of the majority. At that moment Dick could have counted on Peterson alone had need arisen.
'We'll go down there an' explore them workin's,' said Dick, having lit a piece of dry root and composed himself for a smoke.
'In the daytime, Morgan,' said Jacker hastily and with diffidence.
'All right; but it don't make no difference down here, you know.'
Jacker thought it did, for although it was always night in the drives, the consciousness that the earth above was flooded with sunlight was a great heartener.
'Don't you think you'd best give this up for once—this bushranger game?' ventured Jacker.
'Why?' Dick's eyes were round with surprise.
'Oh, well, Twitter's jack of it, an' I don't think it's much fun.' Jacker had assumed a careless air. 'See here, Dick,' he continued smartly, 'the Cow Flat chaps made a raid last night, an' took Butts an' three others—mine among 'em.'
This was an important matter. Butts was Dick's big grey billygoat, the best goat in harness the boys had ever known or ever heard of; and the 'Cow Flat chaps' were the boys of a small centre about two miles and a half further down the creek, between whom and the boys of Waddy there existed an interminable feud that led them to fight on sight, and steal such of each other's possessions as could be easily and expeditiously removed. Dick's excitement soon evaporated; evidently root smoking was conducive to a philosophical frame of mind.
'We'll get them back all right—after,' he said.
'They'll work Butts to a shadder,' Jacker remarked insinuatingly.
'Then we'll go down some night, an' strip Amson's garden.' Amson was a prominent resident of Cow Flat, and had nothing whatever to do with the goat raid, but the boyish sense of justice does not stoop to find distinctions.
Jacker Mack had another string to his bow. 'They say Harry Hardy's comin' home this week,' he said.
'No!' cried Dick, much moved. 'Who says?'
'Pooh! Gable's a kid.'
'No matter, it's true. Mrs. Hardy had a letter, 'n Harry's coming down with cattle.'
'Gosh! he'll make it hot for Tinribs, I bet.'
Waddy had been waiting for Harry Hardy to come home, confident that he would do something of an exciting character to the disadvantage of those persons who had been instrumental in sending his brother Frank to gaol. Harry was much the younger of the two brothers; for some years he had been away droving, and the news of his brother's misfortune was bringing him home from a Queensland station. The township thought, too, there would be a score to wipe out on his mother's account, and the return was looked for as an important public event.
Dick pondered over the situation for a moment. It would never do to miss any entertainment that might result from Harry's return, and yet there was Joel Ham still to be reckoned with.
'I think we'd better wait,' he said. 'You fellows can let on as soon's he arrives.'
Ted's face fell again, and Jacker moved uneasily. He was anxious to be out of the mine and away from the uncanny possibilities of that dark chasm, and yet it was absolutely necessary that he should show no sign of funk, leave no opening for the tongue of derision. Some day, perhaps, when the full strength of the company was available and candles were numerous, he would follow Dick's lead in the work of exploration, but for the present his whole desire was to get to the surface. Now recollection came, and with it hope. Diving into his breast pocket, he drew and crumpled envelope, and handed it to Dick.
A letter,' he said, 'from your mother.'
Dick was surprised; as he took the note Jacker discovered an accusation in his eye.
'The oath don't say nothin' agin' letters,' said McKnight sullenly.
'No,' answered his mate, 'but really miners ain't supposed to have mothers runnin' after 'em, like if they were kids.'
'Well,' said the other, on the defensive, 'your mother comes to me at dinner time, an' she says: 'I s'pose 'taint likely you'll see my Dick, Jacker.' I said,' No, Missus Haddon, 'taint, s'elp me.' Then she says, 'Well, if he should come to see you, will you give him this?' So I took it, an' there you are.'
Dick read the letter slowly; it was a very artful letter, most pathetic, and sprinkled with drops which might have been tears. The writer spoke despondingly of her loneliness and her desolation, and the fears she endured when by herself in the house at night, knowing there was a camp of blacks in the corner paddock, and so many rough cattlemen about. She was entirely helpless since her only protector had deserted her, and she supposed that it only remained for her to be resigned to her fate. She signed her self, 'Your forsaken and sorrow-stricken mother.'
When Dick had finished reading he started to put on his clothes.
'What's up, Morgan?' asked Phil.
'Knock off!' was the brief reply.
'But what yer goin' to do?'
'I'm goin' home.'
'Home!' cried Peterson. 'Why?'
Dick had the instincts of a leader; he demanded reasons for everything, but gave none.
Before the lads parted that night young Haddon proffered Ted McKnight excellent advice.
'Your dad's night shift, ain't he?' he said. 'Well, don't you go in till near twelve. He'll be gone to work then, an' when he comes off in the mornin' he'll be too tired to lick you much.' This, from an orphan with practically no experience of paternal rule, argued a fine intuition.
DICK HADDON did not enter his home immediately after parting with his mates. Mrs. Haddon's little cottage, four roomed, with a queer skillion front, was surrounded by a tumbled mass of tangled vegetation miscalled a garden, and Dick loitered in the shadow of the back fence to consider what manner of entrance would be most politic. He was shrewdly aware that his mother might be tempted to make an attack on the impulse of the moment, her most pathetic letter notwithstanding, and it was a point of honour with him to offer no resistance and make no evasion when Mrs. Haddon felt called upon to administer corporal punishment. To be sure the maternal beatings occasioned very little physical inconvenience; but they gave rise to much unpleasantness, and were to be avoided when possible.
As it happened, Dick was not put to the necessity of making a choice to-night. In the midst of his cogitations he felt himself seized from behind in a pair of long, strong arms. With the quick instinct of a wrongdoer he suspected evil, and kicked sharply back ward at the shins of the enemy.
'Le' go! You le' me go, see!' gasped the boy, struggling and fighting fiercely.
Resistance was quite useless. Dick was dragged through the gate, and up to the house. The door was opened, and he was bundled unceremoniously into the kitchen. Then Ephraim Shine—for it was the superintendent who had fallen upon Dick in the darkness—thrust his sparsely-whiskered, leathery face into the well-lighted room, and said shortly:
'Your boy, ma'am!'
Shine withdrew instantly, closing the door noiselessly after him, and left Dick flushed and furious.
'He didn't take me,' he cried. 'I was comin' home, an' he grabbed me just outside there—the beast!
Dick stopped short, suddenly conscious of the presence of visitors. Mrs. Hardy was sitting opposite his mother by the wide fireplace—the tall, white-haired gentlewoman in whose society he always felt himself transformed suddenly into a sort of saintly fellowship with the remarkably gentlemanly little boys whose acquaintance he made in the books provided by the chapel library. At the table sat Gable, the grey, chubby-faced third-class scholar whom Joel Ham had forgiven because of his extreme youth. The old man had a circular slab of bread and jam in his left hand, and was grinning fraternally at Dick. There was a third visitor, a stranger, a brown-haired, brown-skinned, bony young man, dressed after the manner of a drover. He had a small moustache, and a grave, taking face. He looked like a bushranger, Dick thought admiringly.
'This is Richard, Henry,' said Mrs. Hardy.
'You don't know me, eh, Coppertop?' said the young man, taking the boy's hand.
'Harry Hardy,' said Dick at random.
'Well, that's a good enough guess, young fellow
Dick fell back quietly. It was, he felt, a moment when an air of sadness and a retiring disposition would be likely to be most becoming in him—and most effective. He declined his mother's invitation to supper with such meekness that the little woman found it difficult to hide her concern. Could she have peeped into the drive of the Mount of Gold, where was scrap-food enough to victual a small regiment, not to mention pillage from Wilson's orchard, she might have been more at her ease—or have found fresh occasion for uneasiness. Dick had none of his mother's apple-like roundness—the widow, who was not yet thirty-five, always suggested apples and roses—he had inherited his father's flame-coloured hair, and a pale complexion that was very effective in turning away maternal wrath when allied with an appearance of pensive melancholy and a fictitious pain in the chest.
The conversation, which had been interrupted by Dick's entrance, was presently resumed. The women were recounting the story of Frank Hardy's arrest and trial for Harry's information. The subject was one of profound interest to Dick, and from his retreat at the far end of the table, where he sat disregarded, his crimes tacitly ignored for the time being, he listened eagerly. When Gable kicked him to attract his attention, and gleefully exhibited a handful of loaf sugar that he had slyly abstracted from the basin, the small boy frowned the old man down with a diabolical scowl.
Gable was Mrs. Hardy's brother, and although over sixty years of age, his mind had remained the mind of a child; mentally, he never grew beyond his eighth year. He was a child in all his ways and wishes, was happiest in the society of children, and was regarded by them, without question and without surprise, as one of themselves. He was sent to school because it pleased him to go, and it kept him out of mischief, and every day he learned over again the lessons he had learned the day before and forgotten within an hour. His admiration for Dick Haddon was profound, the respect and appreciation the boy of eight has for the big brother who is twelve and smokes.
Abashed by Dick's frown, the old man devoted himself humbly to his 'piece,' and the boy gave his whole attention to the conversation. He was eager to get an inkling of Harry's line of action. For his own part he had thought of a desperate band, with Harry at its head and himself in a conspicuous position, raiding the gaol at Yarraman under a hail of bullets, and bearing off the prisoner in triumph; but experience had taught him that the expedients of grown-up people were apt to be disgustingly common place and ludicrously ineffective.
'If he'd an enemy,' said Harry, 'there'd be something to go on. Was there nobody, no one at all, that he'd had any row with—nobody who hated him?'
Mrs. Haddon shook her head.
'Nobody,' she said. 'But he declared the real thieves had done it, either to shift suspicion or to be rid of him. He thought it a disgrace that all the men at the Stream should be marked as probable thieves because of one or two rogues; an' he was always eager to spot the real robbers. It was known gold-stealin' had been goin' on for some time. That's why they put on the searcher.'
'Shine. Mightn't he have had a finger in it?'
'No, no. It doesn't seem likely. Why should he?'
'I can't say. God knows! But there is somebody. If I only knew the man—if I only had him under my hand!
Harry's face became grey through the tan; he sat forward in his chair, with a sinewy arm thrust down between his knees, and his hand closed as if upon a throat. His mother touched his shoulder.
'Violence can only work mischief, my boy. Use what intelligence you have—only that can help. If we can save poor Frank and clear his name, we may leave vengeance to the law.'
'Yes, mother, you are right, but I am no saint. I hate my enemies, an' it is maddening not to know who you hate—who to hit at.'
'That may be so, Henry, but passion will only blind you. If you are not cool you will fail. Remember, the true culprits may be near you while you are seeking; do nothing to set them on their guard. You may learn much from the men. They are all Frank's friends, even those who believe him guilty.'
'Believe him guilty!
'O, my boy, my boy! You would want to fight them all. It is folly. The evidence did not leave room for a doubt as to his guilt, and these men have their own ideas as to the morality of such crimes. Many of them think none the worse of a man who helps himself to a nugget that he may find on his shovel.'
'An' you are the mother of a thief, I am a thief's brother; Frank is a convict, an' we must grin an' gammon we like it.'
'We must be discreet, we must be cunning, if we wish to prove we are no thieves and no kin to thieves.'
'Right you are, mother—always right.' The young man spread his rough, brown hand caressingly upon the small hand upon his knee. 'My fist always moves before my head, but I know your way is best, an' I don't mean to forget it.'
'Ephraim Shine seemed to be tryin' to do his best for Frank at the trial,' said Mrs. Haddon. 'I think he's a well-meanin' man, if he is a bit near an' peculiar in his ways. He always says it was his duty he did, an' that's true. We know Frank's not guilty, because—because we're fond of him'—here the little widow wiped her eyes, and her voice trembled—' an' know him better than others, but the case was black against him. Frank came straight up from below and into the searcher's shed, an' Shine found the gold in his crib bag, which was rolled up, an' forced under the handle of his billy.'
'Where it'd been for half the shift, the billy hanging in a dark drive where any man below might 'a 'got at it.'
'They found gold in a little box-place made in the heel of one of his workin' boots.'
'A boot that was always left in the boiler-house when he was off work.
'He had sold coarse water-worn gold to a Jew at Yarraman.'
'Yes, I know, I know. Got, he said, fossicking down the creek where nobody had ever won anything but fine gold before. Whoever put that gold in his crib bag an' faked his boot-heel salted Frank's puddling-tub. It was easy done. He on'y worked there now'n again when on night or afternoon shift, an' it was open to anyone. It was salted with Silver Stream gold by some double-damned cunning scoundrel.'
'We know it, Harry, and we have to prove it. To do that we must have all our wits about us.'
'Yes, mother, we must; but if that man ever is found I hope I may have the handling of him. Dick!' said the young man, turning suddenly.
Dick came forward somewhat diffidently, like a detected criminal.
'You know all about this business, eh?'
The boy nodded his head solemnly.
'Who do you think worked that dirty trick on my brother?' asked Harry gravely.
Dick had not thought of the matter in that light, but he answered, without hesitation:
'Ole Tinribs, I expect.'
'Dickie!' cried Mrs. Haddon, reprovingly.
'Why, why, Dick?' queried the young man.
Oh, I dunno; on'y he seems that sort, don't he?' Dick had been subjected to a grave indignity at the hands of the superintendent, and was not in a frame of mind to form a just estimate of the character of that good man. He spoke with the cheerful irresponsibility of youth.
'I'm afraid you won't be much good to us, Copper-top, old man, if you rush at conclusions in that desperate way,' said Harry.
Mrs. Hardy shook an impressive forefinger at the boy.
'You will say nothing to anybody of our intentions, Richard.'
'No,' said Dick simply; but that word given to Mrs. Hardy was a sacred oath, steel-bound and clamped.
THE school-ground next morning at nine o'clock showed little of its usual activity. Most of the boys were gathered near Sam Brierly's Gothic portico, now in unpicturesque ruins and hanging limply to the school front like an excrescence. Here Richard Haddon and Edward McKnight were standing in attitudes of extreme unconcern, heroes and objects of respectful admiration, but nevertheless inwardly ill at ease and possessed with sore misgivings. Some of their mates were offering sage advice on a matter that concerned them most nearly: how to take cuts from a cane so as to receive the least possible amount of hurt. Peterson was full of valuable information.
'See, you stan' so,' he said, giving rather a good imitation of an unhappy scholar in the act of receiving condign punishment, 'holdin' yer hand like this, you know, keepin' yer eye on Jo; an' jes' when his nibs comes down you shoves yer hand forwards, that sort, an' it don't hurt fer sour apples.'
'Don't cut no more'n nothin' at all,' added the boy 'who was called Moonlight, in cheerful corroboration.
Ted, who was very pale, and had a hunted look in his eyes, nodded his head hopefully, and rehearsed the act with pathetic gravity.
The little girls, who should have been at the other end of the ground, clustered at the corner and peeped round the portico, some giggling, others fully seized of the gravity of the situation. Dick in spite of his fine air of sang froid was well aware that there was one little girl there, a pretty little girl of about ten, with brown hair and dark serious eyes, who was suffering keenest apprehensions on his behalf, and who would weep with quite shameless abandonment when it came to his turn to endure the torments Mr. Joel Ham knew so well how to inflict. Dick was rather superior to little girls; his tender sentiment was usually lavished on ladies ten or twelve years his senior; but he could not hide from himself the fact that Kitty Grey's affection, however hopeless it might be, was at times most gratifying. Once he had resented its manifestations with bitterness, imagining that they were likely to bring him into contempt and undermine his authority; and when she interfered in his memorable fight with Bill Cole and fiercely attacked his opponent with a picket, cutting his head and incapacitating him for fighting for the rest of the day, he felt that he could never forgive her. She had violated the rule of battle and outraged the noble principle of fair play; and, worse and worse, had disgraced him in the eyes of the world by making him appear as a weakling seeking protection behind a despised petticoat. He reviled Kitty for that action in such overwhelming language that the poor girl fled in tears, and next day it was only with the greatest difficulty that she persuaded him to accept two pears and a blood-alley as a peace offering.
Dolf Belman came later with a little comfort.
'Gotter junk o' rosum,' he said, fumbling in his school-bag.
'Hoo! have you though?' said Parrot Cann. 'Rosum's great. Put some on my hand oust when I went to ole Pepper's school at Yarraman, an' near died laughin' when he gave me twenty cuts fer copy-in' me sums.'
The boys clustered about Dolf, who produced a piece of resin about the size of a hen's egg, and waved it triumphantly.
'You pound it up wif a rock,' said he confidently, 'an' rub it on yer hands.'
The pounding process was begun at once, amidst a babel of opinions. It was a fond illusion amongst the boys that resin so applied deadened the effects of the cane. It had been tried scores of times without in the least mitigating the agony of Ham's cuts, but the faith of youth is not easily shaken; so Ted's spirits revived wonderfully, and Dick developed a keen interest in the pounding. Dolf pulverised the 'rosum,' declaring that it should be powdered in one particular way which was a great secret known only to a happy few. If it were powdered in any other way, the resin lost its efficacy as a protection, and might even aggravate the pain. Several boys volunteered testimony in support of Dolf's claim, telling of the strange immunity they had enjoyed on various occasions after applying the resin, and Peter Queen distinctly remembered 'a feller up to Clunes' who, by a judicious use of the powder, was enabled to defy all authority and preserve an attitude of hilarious derision under the most awful tortures.
'This here cove he useter have hisself rubbed all over wif rosum every mornin', then he'd go to school an' kick up ole boots. What'd he care? My word, he was a terror!'
Dolf took up the theme, and enlarged upon the virtues of resin, particularly that resin of his, which was the very best kind of resin for the purpose and had been specially commended by an old swaggie with one eye, who gave it to him for a four-bladed knife and a clay pipe. So great was the effect of these representations that before Dick and Ted had transferred the powder to their pockets they had become objects of envy rather than commiseration, and one or two of their mates would gladly have changed places with them on the spot.
'Wouldn't care if I was in fer it, 'stead o' you, Dick,' said Peterson. 'Mus' be an awful lark to have Hamlet layin' it on, an' you not feelin' it all the time.'
'My oath I' said Jacker Mack feelingly.
'Good morning, boys.'
Joel Ham, B.A., had stolen in amongst them, and stood there in an odd crow-like attitude, his mottled face screwed into an expression of quizzical amiability, and his daily bottle sticking obtrusively from the inside lining of his old coat. The lads scattered sheepishly.
'Peterson,' he said, blinking his pale lashes a dozen times in rapid succession, 'the boy who thinks he can outwit his dear master is an egotist, and egotism, Peterson, is the thing which keeps us from profiting by the experiences of other fools.'
'I dunno what yer talkin' about,' answered Peter son, with heavy resentment.
Mr. Ham blinked again for nearly half a minute.
'Of course not,' he said, 'of course not, my boy.' Then he turned to Dick and Ted with quiet courtesy. 'Good morning, Richard. Good morning, Edward.'
Ted, who was painfully conscious of the large ink-splashes on the master's white trousers, kicked awkwardly at a buried stone, but Dick replied cheerily enough.
The attitude of the master throughout that morning was quite inexplicable to the scholars; he made no allusion whatever to the crimes of which Dick and Ted had been guilty, and gave no hint that he harboured any intentions that were not entirely generous and friendly. The two culprits, working with quite astounding assiduity, were beset with conflicting emotions. Dick, who had a vague sort of insight into the master's character, was prepared for the worst, and yet not blind to the possibility of a free pardon. Ted, after the first hour, was joyous and over-confident.
Mr. Peterson called during the morning and conferred with Joel for a few minutes. The gaping school knew what that meant, and awaited the out come with the most anxious interest. Mr. Peterson, a six-foot Dane, an engine-driver at the Stream, and Billy's father, was volunteering for service in case Mr. Ham should need assistance in dealing with the two culprits; but Joel sent him away, and the boys breathed freely again. Their confidence in Dolf's 'rosum' did not leave them quite blind to the advantages of an amicable settlement of their little difference with Mr. Ham.
It was not until the boys were marching out for the dinner hour, satisfied at last all was well, that Joel seemed suddenly to recollect, and he called after Ted, blighting the poor youth's new-born happiness and filling his small soul with a great apprehension.
'Teddy,' he called, 'you will remain, my boy. I have private business with you—private and confidential, Teddy.'
So Ted fell out and stood by the wall, a very monument of dejection.
When school met again the scholars noted that the ink-stains had been carefully washed and scraped from the wall and the floor, and they found Ted McKnight sprawling in his place, his head buried in his arms, dumb and unapproachable. If a mate came too close, moved by curiosity or a desire to offer sympathy, Ted lashed out at him with his heels. For the time being he was a small but cankered misanthrope full of vengeful schemes, and only one person in the whole school envied him. That person was Richard Haddon, whose turn was yet to come.
An hour passed and Dick had received no hint of the trouble in store. Then Joel Ham, prowling along the desks, inspecting a task, stopped before the boy and stood eyeing him with the curiosity with which an entomologist might regard a rare grub, clawing his thin whiskers the while. The interest he felt was apparently of the most friendly description.
'Ah, Ginger,' he said, 'I had almost forgotten that I am still your debtor. This way, Ginger, please.'
He stood Dick on his high stool, carefully tied the boy's ankles with a strap, and gave him a large slate, on which his faults were emblazoned in chalk, to hold up for the inspection of the classes; and so he left him for the remainder of the afternoon, every now and again pausing in his vicinity to deliver some incomprehensible sentiment or a sarcastic homily. This performance affected all the scholars, but it excited Gable so much that the little old man could do nothing but sit and stare at Dick with round eyes and open mouth, and mutter 'Oh, crickie!' in a frightened way. The little dark-eyed girl in the Third Class bore the ordeal badly, too, and every speech of the master's started a large tear rolling down her dimpled brown cheek.
When the rest of the youngsters marched out, Dick Haddon remained on his high perch. Kitty Grey, who brought up the tail of the procession, turned at the door and walked back to the master timorously and with downcast eyes; and Dick felt that a plea was to be made on his behalf, but could not hear what followed.
'Please, sir, if you won't cane him very much I'll give you this,' said Kitty.
The bribe was a small brooch that had originally contained the letters of the little girl's first name. It was a very cheap brooch when new, and now some of the letters were gone and the gilt was worn off, but it was still a priceless treasure in Kitty's eyes. Joel Ham examined the gift, and then looked down upon the petitioner, his face pulled sideways into its familiar withered grin.
Do you know this is bribery, little Miss Grey,' he said, 'bribery and corruption?'
Ye-es, please, sir,' said Kitty.
'And do you know that that fellow up there is a monster of infamy, a rebel and a riotous blackguard, who must be repressed in the interests of peace and good government?'
'Yes, please, sir; but—but he's only a little fellow.' The master's tremendous words seemed to call for this reminder.
Joel screwed his grin down another wrinkle or two.
'Yet you intercede for the ruffian try to buy him off, and at a valuation, too, that proves you to be deaf to the voice of reason and utterly improvident.'
'Oh, Mr. Ham, he didn't mean it—really, he didn't mean it!
Joel screwed out another wrinkle. His mirth always increased wrinkle by wrinkle, until at times it appeared as if he were actually going to screw his own neck by sheer force of repressed hilarity.
'I am incorruptible, Miss Grey,' he said. 'Take back your precious jewel; but I promise you this, my dear, our friend Dick shall not get as much as he deserves. Boys are like some metals, Miss Kitty, their temper is improved by hammering.'
Kitty left the master, entirely in the dark as to the effect of her intercession; but evidently it was not of much advantage to Dick. When the boy came from the school about half an hour later, he carried his chin high, his lips were compressed tightly, and he stared straight ahead. Three faithful friends who had waited to know the worst joined him, but no words were spoken. They followed at his heels, showing by their silence due respect for a profound emotion. Dick did not make for home; he turned off to the right and led the way down into one of the large quarries on the flat, and there turned a flushed face and a pair of flashing eyes upon his mates.
'I'm going to have it out of Ham,' he said. 'I don't care! He's a dog, and he ain't goin' to do as he likes with me.'
'How many, Dick?' asked Ted eagerly.
'Dunno,' said Dick, exposing his hands; 'he jus' cut away till he was tired, chi-ikin' me all the time. But I'll get even, you see!'
Dick's palms were very puffy; there were a couple of blue blisters on his fingers, and across each wrist an angry-looking white wheal. The boys were sufficiently impressed, and, in spite of his wrath against Joel Ham, Dicky could not resist a certain gratification on that account. Boys take much pride in the sufferings they have borne, and their scars are always exhibited with a grave conceit. Ted displayed his hands, still betraying evidence of the morning's caning, and Jacker Mack spoke feelingly of stripes and bruises remaining since Tuesday. Peterson was the only one quite free from mark or brand of the master's, and he recollected many thrashings with extreme bitterness, and was quite in sympathy with the party.
'What say if we give him a scare?' said Dick. 'Are you on?'
Jacker and Ted were dubious. It was too sudden; their recent experiences had made them unusually respectful of the master. Dick marked the hesitation, and said scornfully:
'Oh, you fellows needn't be afraid. You won't be let in for it. I know a trick that's quite safe—bin thinkin' about it all the afternoon.'
If Dick were quite sure it was safe, and if there were not the smallest possible chance of their complicity being disclosed, Jacker and Ted were quite agreeable. Peterson was always agreeable for adventure, however absurd. Dick explained:
'Hamlet's gone down to the pub. He's sure to get screwed to-night. There's a fool feller there from McInnes, knockin' down a cheque an' shoutin' mad. Hamlet'll get his share in spite of all, an' he'll be as tight as a brick by ten o'clock. You know my joey 'possum? Well, I'll fix him up into the awfullest kind of a blue devil, with feathers an' things. We'll push him into Jo's room, and when Jo comes home an' strikes a light he'll spot him, an' think he's got delirious trimmens again. That'll give him a shakin'.'
'My oath, won't it!' ejaculated Peterson.
Jacker was elated, and grinned far and wide.
'P'raps he'll go nippin' round, thinkin' he's chased by 'em like he did las' Christmas holidays,' suggested the elder McKnight gleefully.
This villainous scheme was the result of the boys' extraordinary familiarity with many phases of drunkenness. Waddy was a pastoral as well as a mining centre, and strange ribald men came out of the bush at intervals to 'melt' their savings at the Drovers' Arms. The Yarraman sale-yards for cattle and sheep were near Waddy too, and brought dusty drovers and droughty stockmen in crowds to the town ship every Tuesday. These men were indiscreet and indiscriminate drinkers, and often a vagrant was left behind to finish a spree that surrounded him with unheard-of reptiles and strange kaleidoscopic animals unknown to the zoologist. It must be admitted, too, that Joel Ham, B.A., was in a measure responsible for the boys' unlawful knowledge. Twice at holiday times, when he was not restricted at the Drovers' Arms, he had continued his libations until it was necessary for his own good and the peace of the place to tie him down in his bunk and set a guard over him; and on one of these occasions he had created much excitement by rushing through the township at midnight, scantily clad, under the impression that he was being pursued by a tall dark gentleman in a red cloak and possessed of both horns and hoofs.
It was nearly nine o'clock that night when the four conspirators met to carry out their nefarious project. Dick was carrying a bag—in which was the joey—a bull's-eye lantern, various coloured feathers, and other small necessaries, and the party hastened in the direction of Mr. Ham's humble residence. Ham was 'a hatter'—he lived alone in a secluded place on the other side of the quarries. The house was large for Waddy, and had once been a boarding-house, but was now little better than a ruin. The schoolmaster had reclaimed one room, furnished it much like a miner's but, with the addition of a long shelf of tattered books, and here he 'batched,' perfectly contented with his lot for all that Waddy could ever discover to the contrary. There was no other house within a quarter of a mile of the ruin, which was hemmed in with four rows of wattles, and surrounded by a wilderness of dead fruit-trees—victims to the ravages of the goats of the township—and a tangled scrub of Cape broom. The boys approached the house with quite unnecessary caution, keeping along the string of dry quarry-holes, and creeping towards the back door through the thick growth as warily as so many Indians on the trail. Dick Haddon cared nothing for an enterprise that had no flavour of mystery, and was wont to invest his most commonplace undertakings with a romantic significance. For the time being he was a wronged aboriginal king, leading the remnants of his tribe to wreak a deadly vengeance on the white usurper. A short conference was held in the garden.
'We'll go into one o' the old rooms, an' fix the joey up there. Then we can wait till Hamlet comes, if yonse fellows 're game,' said Dick softly.
'I'm on,' whispered Peterson.
'He won't be long, I bet. McKnight, 'r Belman, 'r some o' the others is sure to roust him out when he's properly tight. Foller me.'
Dick led the way up to the door, pushed it open, and entered. The others were about to follow, but to their horror they saw a large figure start forward from the pitch darkness beyond, heard an oath and the sound of a blow, and saw Dick fall face downwards upon the floor. Then the door was slammed from within, and the three terrorstricken boys turned and fled as fast as their legs would carry them.
Dick lay upon the floor with outthrown arms, and the figure stood over him in a listening attitude.
'Good God! 'ye you killed him?' cried someone in the far corner of the room.
'Sh-h, you cursed fool!' hissed the big man.
'Who is it?' asked the other tremulously.
The big man seized Dick, and dragged him to where the grey moonlight shone through a shattered window.
'Young Haddon,' he said. 'Blast the boy! a man never knows where he will poke his nose next.'
'The others 'ye gone?'
'Yes. They were on'y boys.'
'Didn't I tell you it wouldn't do to be meetin' in places like this? No more of it for me. They've been listenin', an' we're done men. We'll be nabbed!'
'Shut up your infernal cackle! The boys hadn't any notion we was here. They had some lark on. They couldn't have seen us—we're all right.'