It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
The old attachment was revived. Robinson had always a great regard for George, and after nursing and bringing him through a dangerous illness this feeling doubled. And as for George, the man who had brought him a letter from Susan one hundred and sixty miles became such a benefactor in his eyes that he thought nothing good enough for him.
In a very few days George was about again and on his pony, and he and Robinson and Carlo went a shepherding. One or two bullocks had gone to Jericho while George lay ill, and the poor fellow's heart was sore when he looked at his diminished substance and lost time. Robinson threw himself heart and soul into the business, and was of great service to George; but after a bit he found it a dull life.
George saw this, and said to him: "You would do better in a town. I should he sorry to lose you, but if you take my advice you will turn your back on unlucky George, and try the paint-brush in Bathurst."
For Robinson had told him all about it--and painted his front door. "Can't afford to part from Honesty," was the firm reply.
George breathed again. Robinson was a great comfort to the weak, solitary, and now desponding man. One day for a change they had a thirty-mile walk, to see a farmer that had some beasts to sell a great bargain; he was going to boil them down if he could not find a customer. They found them all just sold. "Just my luck," said George.
They came home another way. Returning home, George was silent and depressed.
Robinson was silent, but appeared to be swelling with some grand idea. Every now and then he shot ahead under its influence. When they got home and were seated at supper, he suddenly put this question to George, "Did you ever hear of any gold being found in these parts?"
"What, not in any part of the country?"
"Well, that is odd!"
"I am afraid it is a very bad country for that."
"Ay to make it in, but not to find it in."
"What do you mean?"
"George," said the other, lowering his voice mysteriously, "in our walk to-day we passed places that brought my heart into my mouth; for if this was only California those places would be pockets of gold."
"But you see it is not California, but Australia, where all the world knows there is nothing of what your mind is running on."
"Don't say 'knows,' say 'thinks.' Has it ever been searched for gold?"
"I'll be bound it has; or, if not, with so many eyes constantly looking on every foot of soil a speck or two would have come to light."
"One would think so; but it is astonishing how blind folks are, till they are taught how to look, and where to look. 'Tis the mind that sees things, George, not the eye."
"Ah!" said George with a sigh, "this chat puts me in mind of 'The Grove.' Do you mind how you used to pester everybody to go out to California?"
"Yes! and I wish we were there now."
"And all your talk used to be gold--gold--gold."
"As well say it as think it."
"That is true. Well, we shall be very busy all day to-morrow, but in the afternoon dig for gold an hour or two--then you will be satisfied."
"But it is no use digging here; it was full five-and-twenty miles from here the likely-looking place."
"Then why didn't you stop me at the place?"
"Why?" replied Robinson, sourly, "because his reverence did so snub me whenever I got upon that favorite topic, that I really had got out of the habit. I was ashamed to say, 'George, let us stop on the road and try for gold with our finger-nails.' I knew I should only get laughed at."
"Well," said George sarcastically, "since the gold mine is twenty-five miles off, and our work is round about the door, suppose we pen sheep to-morrow--and dig for gold when there is nothing better to be done."
Robinson sighed. Unbucolical to the last degree was the spirit in which our Bohemian tended the flocks next morning.
His thoughts were deeper than the soil. And every evening up came the old topic. Oh! how sick George got of it. At last one night he said: "My lad, I should like to tell you a story--but I suppose I shall make a bungle of it; shan't cut the furrow clean I am doubtful."
"Never mind; try!"
"Well, then. Once upon a time there was an old chap that had heard or read about treasures being found in odd places, a pot full of guineas or something; and it took root in his heart till nothing would serve him but he must find a pot of guineas, too; he used to poke about all the old ruins. grubbing away, and would have taken up the floor of the church, but the churchwardens would not have it. One morning he comes down and says to his wife, 'It is all right, old woman, I've found the treasure.'
"'No! have you, though?' says she.
"'Yes!' says he; 'leastways, it is as good as found; it is only waiting till I've had my breakfast, and then I'll go out and fetch it in.'
"'La, John, but how did you find it?'
"'It was revealed to me in a dream,' says he, as grave as a judge.
"'And where is it?' asks the old woman.
"'Under a tree in our own orchard--no farther,' says he.
"'Oh, John! how long you are at breakfast to-day!' Up they both got and into the orchard. 'Now, which tree is it under?'
"John, he scratches his head, 'Blest if I know.'
"'Why, you old ninny,' says the mistress, 'didn't you take the trouble to notice?'
"'That I did,' said he; 'I saw plain enough which tree it was in my dream, but now they muddle it all, there are so many of 'em.'
"'Drat your stupid old head,' says she, 'why didn't you put a nick on the right one at the time?'"
Robinson burst out laughing. George chuckled. "Oh!" said he, "there were a pair of them for wisdom, you may take your oath of that. 'Well,' says he, 'I must dig till I find the right one.' The wife she loses heart at this; for there was eighty apple-trees, and a score of cherry-trees. 'Mind you don't cut the roots,' says she, and she heaves a sigh. John he gives them bad language, root and branch. 'What signifies cut or no cut; the old faggots--they don't bear me a bushel of fruit the whole lot. They used to bear two sacks apiece in father's time. Drat 'em.'
"'Well, John,' says the old woman, smoothing him down; 'father used to give them a deal of attention.'--' 'Tain't that! 'tain't that!' says he quick and spiteful-like; 'they have got old like ourselves, and good for fire-wood.' Out pickax and spade and digs three foot deep round one, and finding nothing but mould goes at another, makes a little mound all round him, too--no guinea-pot. Well, the village let him dig three or four quiet enough; but after that curiosity was awakened, and while John was digging, and that was all day, there was mostly seven or eight watching through the fence and passing jests. After a bit a fashion came up of flinging a stone or two at John; then John he brought out his gun loaded with dust-shot along with his pick and spade, and the first stone came he fired sharp in that direction and then loaded again. So they took that hint, and John dug on in peace--till about the fourth Sunday--and then the parson had a slap at him in church. 'Folks were not to heap up to themselves treasures on earth,' was all his discourse."
"Well, but," said Robinson, "this one was only heaping up mould."
"So it seemed when he had dug the five-score holes, for no pot of gold didn't come to light. Then the neighbors called the orchard 'Jacobs' Folly;' his name was Jacobs--John Jacobs. 'Now then, wife,' says he, 'suppose you and I look out for another village to live in, for their gibes are more than I can bear.' Old woman begins to cry. 'Been here so long--brought me home here, John--when we were first married, John--and I was a comely lass, and you the smartest young man I ever saw, to my fancy any way; couldn't sleep or eat my victuals in any house but this.'
"'Oh! couldn't ye? Well, then, we must stay; perhaps it will blow over.' -- 'Like everything else, John; but, dear John, do ye fill in those holes; the young folk come far and wide on Sundays to see them.'
"'Wife, I haven't the heart,' says he. 'You see, when I was digging for the treasure I was always a-going to find, it kept my heart up; but take out shovel and fill them in--I'd as lieve dine off white of egg on a Sunday.' So for six blessed months the heaps were out in the heat and frost till the end of February, and then when the weather broke the old man takes heart and fills them in, and the village soon forgot 'Jacobs' Folly' because it was out of sight. Comes April, and out burst the trees. 'Wife,' says he, 'our bloom is richer than I have known it this many a year, it is richer than our neighbors'.' Bloom dies, and then out come about a million little green things quite hard."
"Ay! ay!" said Robinson; "I see."
"Michaelmas-day the old trees were staggering and the branches down to the ground with the crop; thirty shillings on every tree one with another; and so on for the next year, and the next; sometimes more, sometimes less, according to the year. Trees were old and wanted a change. His letting in the air to them, and turning the subsoil up to the frost and sun, had renewed their youth. So by that he learned that tillage is the way to get treasure from the earth. Men are ungrateful at times, but the soil is never ungrateful, it always makes a return for the pains we give it."
"Well, George," said Robinson, "thank you for your story; it is a very good one, and after it I'll never dig for gold in a garden. But now suppose a bare rock or an old river's bed, or a mass of shingles or pipe-clay, would you dig or manure them for crops?"
"Why, of course not."
"Well, those are the sort of places in which nature has planted a yellower crop and a richer crop than tillage ever produced. And I believe there are plums of gold not thirty miles from here in such spots waiting only to be dug out."
"Well, Tom, I have wasted a parable, that is all. Good-night; I hope to sleep and be ready for a good day's work to-morrow. You shall dream of digging up gold here--if you like."
"I'll never speak of it again," said Robinson doggedly.
If you want to make a man a bad companion, interdict altogether the topic that happens to interest him. Robinson ceased to vent his chimera. So it swelled and swelled in his heart, and he became silent, absorbed, absent and out of spirits. "Ah!" thought George, "poor fellow, he is very dull. He won't stay beside me much longer."
This conviction was so strong that he hesitated to close with an advantageous offer that came to him from his friend, Mr. Winchester. That gentleman had taken a lease of a fine run some thirty miles from George. He had written George that he was to go and look at it, and if he liked it better than his own he was to take it. Mr. Winchester could make no considerable use of either for some time to come.
George hesitated. He felt himself so weak-handed with only Robinson, who might leave him, and a shepherd lad he had just hired. However his hands were unexpectedly strengthened.
One day as the two friends were washing a sheep an armed savage suddenly stood before them. Robinson dropped the sheep and stood on his defense, but George cried out, "No! no! it is Jacky! Why, Jacky, where on earth have you been?" And he came warmly toward him. Jacky fled to a small eminence and made warlike preparations. "You stop you a good while and I speak. Who you?"
"Who am I? stupid. Why, who should I be but George Fielding?"
"I see you one George Fielding, but I not know you dis George Fielding. George die. I see him die. You alive. You please you call dog Carlo! Carlo wise dog."
"Well, I never! Hie, Carlo! Carlo!"
Up came Carlo full pelt. George patted him, and Carlo wagged his tail and pranced about in the shape of a reaping-hook. Jacky came instantly down, showed his ivories, and admitted his friend's existence on the word of the dog. "Jacky a good deal glad because you not dead now. When black fellow die he never live any more. Black fellow stupid fellow. I tink I like white fellow a good deal bigger than black fellow. Now I stay with you a good while."
George's hands thus strengthened he wrote and told Mr. Winchester he would go to the new ground, which, as far as he could remember, was very good, and would inspect it, and probably make the exchange with thanks. It was arranged that in two days' time the three friends should go together, inspect the new ground and build a temporary hut there.
Meantime Robinson and Jacky make great friends. Robinson showed him one or two sleight-of-hand tricks that stamped him at once a superior being in Jacky's eyes, and Jacky showed Robinson a thing or two He threw his boomerang and made it travel a couple of hundred yards, and return and hover over his head like a bird and settle at his feet; but he was shy of throwing his spear. "Keep spear for when um angry, not throw him straight now.
"Don't you believe that, Tom," said George. "Fact is the little varmint can't hit anything with 'em. Now look at that piece of bark leaning against that tree. You don't hit it. Come, try, Jacky." Jacky yawned and threw a spear carelessly. It went close by but did not hit it.
"Didn't I tell you so?" said George. "I'd stand before him and his spears all day with nothing but a cricket-stump in my hand, and never be hit, and never brag, neither." Jacky showed his ivories. "When I down at Sydney white man put up a little wood and a bit of white money for Jacky. Then Jacky throw straight a good deal."
"Now hark to that! black skin or white skin 'tis all the same; we can't do our best till we are paid for it. Don't you encourage him, Tom, I won't have it."
The two started early one fine morning for the new ground, distant full thirty miles. At first starting Robinson was in high glee; his nature delighted in change; but George was sad and silent. Three times he had changed his ground and always for the better. But to what end. These starts in early morning for fresh places used once to make him buoyant, but not now. All that was over. He persisted doggedly, and did his best like a man, but in his secret heart not one grain of hope was left. Indeed it was but the other day he had written to Susan and told her it was not possible he could make a thousand pounds. The difficulties were too many, and then his losses had been too great. And he told her he felt it was scarcely fair to keep her to her promise. "You would waste all your youth, Susan, dear, waiting for me." And he told her how he loved her and never should love another; but left her free.
To add to his troubles he was scarcely well of the fever when he caught a touch of rheumatism; and the stalwart young fellow limped along by Robinson's side, and instead of his distancing Jacky as he used in better days, Jacky rattled on ahead and having got on the trail of an opossum announced his intention of hunting it down and then following the human trail. "Me catch you before the sun go, and bring opossum--then we eat a good deal." And off glided Jacky after his opossum.
The pair plodded and limped on in gloomy silence, for at a part of the road where they emerged from green meadows on rocks and broken ground Robinson's tongue had suddenly ceased.
They plodded on, one sad and stiff, the other thoughtful. Any one meeting the pair would have pitied them. Ill-success was stamped on them. Their features were so good, their fortunes so unkind. Their clothes were sadly worn, their beards neglected, their looks thoughtful and sad. The convert to honesty stole more than one look at the noble figure that limped beside him and the handsome face in which gentle, uncomplaining sorrow seemed to be a tenant for life; and to the credit of our nature be it said that his eyes filled and his heart yearned. "Oh, Honesty!" said he, "you are ill-paid here. I have been well paid for my little bit of you, but here is a life of honesty and a life of ill-luck and bitter disappointment. Poor George! poor, dear George! Leave you? never while I have hands to work and a brain to devise!"
They now began slowly to mount a gentle slope that ended in a long black snakelike hill. "When we get to that hill we shall see my new pasture," said George. "New or old, I doubt 'twill be all the same."
And he sighed and relapsed into silence. Meantime Jacky had killed his opossum and was now following their trail at an easy trot.
Leaving the two sad ones with worn clothes and heavy hearts plodding slowly and stiffly up the long rough slope, our story runs on before and gains the rocky platform they are making for and looks both ways--back toward the sad ones and forward over a grand, long, sweeping valley. This pasture is rich in proportion as it recedes from this huge backbone of rock that comes from the stony mountains and pierces and divides the meadows as a cape the sea. In the foreground the grass suffers from its stern neighbor, is cut up here and there by the channels of defunct torrents, and dotted with fragments of rock, some of which seem to have pierced the bosom of the soil from below, others have been detached at different epochs from the parent rock and rolled into the valley. But these wounds are only discovered on inspection; at a general glance from the rocky road into the dale the prospect is large, rich and laughing; fairer pastures are to be found in that favored land, but this sparkles at you like an emerald roughly set, and where the backbone of rock gives a sudden twist bursts out all at once broad smiling in your face--a land flowing with milk and every bush a thousand nosegays. At the angle above-mentioned, which commanded a double view, a man was standing watching some object or objects not visible to his three companions; they were working some yards lower down by the side of a rivulet that brawled and bounded down the hill. Every now and then an inquiry was shouted up to that individual, who was evidently a sort of scout or sentinel. At last one of the men in the ravine came up and bade the scout go down.
"I'll soon tell you whether we shall have to knock off work." And he turned the corner and disappeared.
He shaded both his eyes with his hands, for the sun was glaring. About a mile off he saw two men coming slowly up by a zig-zag path toward the very point where he stood. Presently the men stopped and examined the prospect, each in his own way. The taller one took a wide survey of the low ground, and calling his companion to him appeared to point out to him some beauty or peculiarity of the region. Our scout stepped back and called down to his companions, "Shepherds!"
He then strolled back to his post with no particular anxiety. Arrived there his uneasiness seemed to revive. The shorter of the two strangers had lagged behind his comrade, and the watcher observed, that he was carrying on a close and earnest inspection of the ground in detail.
He peered into the hollows and loitered in every ravine. This gave singular offense to the keen eye that was now upon him. Presently he was seen to stop and call his taller companion to him, and point with great earnestness first to something at their feet, then to the backbone of rocks; and it so happened by mere accident that his finger took nearly the direction of the very spot where the observer of all his movements stood. The man started back out of sight and called in a low voice to his comrades,
They came straggling up with troubled and lowering faces. "Lie down and watch them," said the leader. The men stooped and crawled forward to some stunted bushes, behind which they lay down and watched in silence the unconscious pair who were now about two furlongs distant. The shorter of the two still loitered behind his companion, and inspected the ground with particular interest. The leader of the band, who went by the name of Black Will, muttered a curse upon his inquisitiveness. The others assented all but one, a huge fellow whom the others addressed as Jem. "Nonsense," said Jem, "dozens pass this way and are none the wiser."
"Ay," replied Black Will, "with their noses in the air. But that is a notice-taking fellow. Look at him with his eyes forever on the rocks, or in the gullies, or--there if he is not picking up a stone and breaking it!"
"Ha! ha!" laughed Jem incredulously, "how many thousand have picked up stones and broke them and all, and never known what we know."
"He has been in the same oven as we," retorted the other.
Here one of the others put in his word. "That is not likely, captain; but if it is so there are no two ways. A secret is no secret if all the world is to know it."
"You remember our oath, Jem," said the leader sternly.
"Why should I forget it more than another?" replied the other angrily.
"Have you all your knives?" asked the captain gloomily. The men nodded assent.
"Cross them with me as we did when we took our oath first."
The men stretched out each a brawny arm, and a long sharp knife, so that all the points came together in a focus; and this action suited well with their fierce and animal features, their long neglected beards, their matted hair and their gleaming eyes. It looked the prologue to some deed of blood. This done, at another word from their ruffianly leader they turned away from the angle in the rock and plunged hastily down the ravine; but they had scarcely taken thirty steps when they suddenly disappeared.
In the neighborhood of the small stream I have mentioned was a cavern of irregular shape that served these men for a habitation and place of concealment. Nature had not done all. The stone was soft, and the natural cavity had been enlarged and made a comfortable retreat enough for the hardy men whose home it was. A few feet from the mouth of the cave on one side grew a stout bush that added to the shelter and the concealment, and on the other the men themselves had placed two or three huge stones, which, from the attitude the rogues had given them, appeared, like many others, to have rolled thither years ago from the rock above.
In this retreat the whole band were now silently couched, two of them in the mouth of the cave, Black Will and another lying flat on their stomachs watching the angle of the road for the two men who must pass that way, and listening for every sound. Black Will was carefully and quietly sharpening his knife on one of the stones and casting back every now and then a meaning glance to his companions. The pertinacity with which he held to his idea began to tell on them, and they sat in an attitude of sullen and terrible suspicion. But Jem wore a look of contemptuous incredulity. However small a society may be, if it is a human one jealousy shall creep in. Jem grudged Black Will his captaincy. Jem was intellectually a bit of a brute. He was a stronger man than Will, and therefore thought it hard that merely because Will was a keener spirit, Will should be over him. Half an hour passed thus, and the two travelers did not make their appearance.
"Not even coming this way at all," said Jem.
"Hush!" replied Will sternly, "hold your tongue. They must come this way, and they can't be far off. Jem, you can crawl out and see where they are, if you are clever enough to keep that great body out of sight."
Jem resented this doubt cast upon his adroitness, and crawled out among the bushes. He had scarcely got twenty yards when he halted and made a signal that the men were in sight. Soon afterward he came back with less precaution. "They are sitting eating their dinner close by, just on the sunny side of the rock--shepherds, as I told you--got a dog. Go yourself if you don't believe me."
The leader went to the spot, and soon after returned and said quietly, "Pals, I dare say he is right. Lie still till they have had their dinner; they are going farther, no doubt."
Soon after this he gave a hasty signal of silence, for George and Robinson at that moment came round the corner of the rock and stood on the road not fifty yards above them. Here they paused as the valley burst on their view, and George pointed out its qualities to his comrade. "It is not first-rate, Tom, but there is good grass in patches, and plenty of water."
Robinson, instead of replying or giving his mind to the prospect said to George, "Why, where is he?"
"The man that I saw standing at this corner a while ago. He came round this way I'll be sworn."
"He is gone away, I suppose. I never saw any one, for my part."
"I did, though. Gone away? How could he go away? The road is in sight for miles, and not a creature on it. He is vanished."
"I don't see him anyway, Tom."
"Of course you don't, he is vanished into the bowels of the earth. I don't like gentlemen that vanish into the bowels of the earth."
"How suspicious you are! Bushrangers again, I suppose. They are always running in your mind--them and gold."
"You know the country, George. Here, take my stick." And he handed George a long stick with a heavy iron ferule. "If a man is safe here he owes it to himself, not to his neighbor."
"Then why do you give me your weapon?" said George with a smile.
"I haven't," was the reply. "I carry my sting out of sight, like a humble bee." And Mr. Robinson winked mysteriously, and the process seemed to relieve his mind and soothe his suspicions. He then fell to inspecting the rocks; and when George pointed out to him the broad and distant pasture he said, in an absent way, "Yes;" and turning round George found him with his eyes glued to the ground at his feet, and his mind in a deep reverie. George was vexed, and said somewhat warmly, "Why, Tom, the place is worth looking at now we are come to it, surely."
Robinson made no direct reply. "George," said he thoughtfully, "how far have you got toward your thousand pounds?"
"Oh, Tom! don't ask me, don't remind me! How can I ever make it? No market within a thousand miles of any place in this confounded country! Forced to boil down sheep into tallow and sell them for the price of a wild duck! I have left my Susan, and I have lost her. Oh, why did you remind me?"
"So much for the farming lay. Don't you be down-hearted, there's better cards in the pack than the five of spades; and the farther I go and the more I see of this country the surer I am. There is a good day coming for you and me. Listen, George. When I shut my eyes for a moment now where I stand, and then open them--I'm in California."
"No, wide awake--wider than you are now. George, look at these hills; you could not tell them from the golden range of California.. But that is not all; when you look into them you find they are made of the same stuff, too--granite, mica and quartz. Now don't you be cross."
"No! no! why should I? Show me," said George, trying out of kindheartedness to take an interest in this subject, which had so often wearied him.
"Well, here are two of them. That great dark bit out there is mica, and all this that runs in a vein like is quartz. Quartz and mica are the natural home of gold; and some gold is to be found at home still, but the main of it has been washed out and scattered like seed all over the neighboring clays. You see, George, the world is a thousand times older than most folks think, and water has been working upon gold thousands and thousands of years before ever a man stood upon the earth, ay or a dog either, Carlo, for as wise as you look squatting out there thinking of nothing and pretending to be thinking of everything."
"Well, drop gold," said George, "and tell me what this is," and he handed Robinson a small fossil.
Robinson eyed it with wonder and interest. "Where on earth did you find this?"
"Hard by; what is it?"
"Plenty of these in California. What is it? Why, I'll tell you; it is a pale old Joey."
"You don't say so; looks like a shell."
"Sit down a moment, George, and let us look at it. He bids me drop gold--and then goes and shows me a proof of gold that never deceived us out there."
"You are mad. How can this be a sign of gold? I tell you it is a shell."
"And I tell you that where these things are found among mica, quartz and granite, there gold is to be found if men have the wit, the patience and the skill to look for it. I can't tell you why; the laws of gold puzzle deeper heads than mine, but so it is. I seem to smell gold all round me here." And Robinson flushed all over, so powerfully did the great idea of gold seated here on his native throne grapple and agitate his mind.
"Tom," said the other doggedly, "if there is as much gold on the ground of New South Wales as will make me a wedding-ring--I am a Dutchman;" and he got up calmly and jerked the pale old Joey a tremendous way into the valley.
This action put Robinson's blood up. "George," cried he, springing up like fire and bringing his foot down sharp upon the rocky floor, "IF I DON'T STAND UPON GOLD--I'M D----D!"
And a wild but true inspiration seemed to be upon the man; a stranger could hardly have helped believing him, but George had heard a good deal of this, though the mania had never gone quite so far. He said quickly, "Come, let us go down into the pasture."
"Not I," replied Robinson. "Come, George, prejudice is for babies, experience for men. Here is an unknown country with all the signs of gold thicker than ever. I have got a calabash--stay and try for gold in this gully; it looks to me just like the mouth of a purse."
"I will, then."
"Why not? I don't think you will find anything in it, but anyway you will have a better chance when I am not by to spoil you. Luck is all against me. If I want rain, comes drought; if I want sun, look for a deluge, if there is money to be made by a thing I'm out of it; to be lost, I'm in it; if I loved a vixen she'd drop into my arms like a medlar; I love an angel and that is why I shall never have her, never. From a game of marbles to the game of life I never had a grain of luck like other people. Leave me, Tom, and try if you can find gold; you will have a chance, my poor fellow, if unlucky George is not aside you."
"Leave you, George! not if I know it."
"You are to blame if you don't. Turn your back on me as I did on you in England."
"Never! I'd rather not find gold than part with honesty. There, I'm coming--let us go--quick--come, let us leave here." And the two men left the road and turned their faces and their steps across the ravine.
During all this dialogue the men in the cave had strained both eyes and ears to comprehend the speakers. The distance was too great for them to catch all the words, but this much was clear from the first, that one of the men wished to stay on the spot for some purpose, and the other to go on; but presently, as the speakers warmed, a word traveled down the breeze that made the four ruffians start and turn red with surprise, and the next moment darken with anger and apprehension. The word came again and again; they all heard it--its open vowel gave it a sonorous ring; it seemed to fly farther than any other word the speaker uttered, or perhaps when he came to it he spoke it louder than smaller words, or the hearers' ears were watching for it.
The men interchanged terrible looks, and then they grasped their knives and watched their leader's eye for some deadly signal. Again and again the word "g-o-l-d" came like an Aeolian note into the secret cave, and each time eye sought eye and read the unlucky speaker's death-warrant there. But when George prevailed and the two men started for the valley, the men in the cave cast uncertain looks on one another, and he we have called Jem drew a long breath and said brutally, yet with something of satisfaction, "You have saved your bacon this time." The voices now drew near and the men crouched close, for George and Robinson passed within fifteen yards of them. They were talking now about matters connected with George's business, for Robinson made a violent effort and dropped his favorite theme to oblige his comrade. They passed near the cave, and presently their backs were turned to it.
"Good-by, my lads," whispered Jem. "And curse you for making us lose a good half hour," muttered another of the gang. The words were scarce out of his mouth before a sudden rustle was heard and there was Carlo. He had pulled up in mid career and stood transfixed with astonishment, literally pointing the gang; it was but for a moment--he did not like the looks of the men at all; he gave a sharp bark that made George and Robinson turn quickly round, and then he went on hunting.
"A kangaroo!" shouted Robinson, "it must have got up near that bush; come and look--if it is we will hunt it down."
George turned back with him, but on reflection he said, "No! Tom, we have a long road to go, let us keep on, if you please;" and they once more turned their backs to the cave, whistled Carlo, and stepped briskly out toward the valley. A few yards before them was the brook I have already noticed--it was about three yards broad at this spot. However, Robinson, who was determined not to make George lose any more time, took the lead and giving himself the benefit of a run, cleared it like a buck. But as he was in the air his eye caught some object on this side the brook, and making a little circle on the other side, he came back with ludicrous precipitancy, and jumping short, landed with one foot on shore and one in the stream. George burst out laughing.
"Do you see this?" cried Robinson.
"Yes; somebody has been digging a hole here," said George very coolly.
"Come higher up," cried Robinson, all in a flutter--"do you see this?"
"Yes; it is another hole."
"'It is. Do you see this wet, too?"
"I see there has been some water spilled by the brook side."
"What kind of work has been done here? have they been digging potatoes, farmer?"
"Don't be foolish, Tom."
"Is it any kind of work you know? Here is another trench dug."
"No! it is nothing in my way, that is the truth."
"But it is work the signs of which I know as well as you know a plowed field from a turnpike-road."
"Why, what is it then?"
"It is gold washing."
"You don't say so, Tom."
"This is gold washing as beginners practice it in California and Mexico and Peru, and wherever gold-dust is found. They have been working with a pan, they haven't got such a thing as a cradle in this country. Come lower down; this was yesterday's work, let us find to-day's."
The two men now ran down the stream busy as dogs hunting an otter. A little lower down they found both banks of the stream pitted with holes about two feet deep and the sides drenched with water from it.
"Well, if it is so, you need not look so pale; why, dear me, how pale you are, Tom!"
"You would be pale," gasped Tom, "if you could see what a day this is for you and me, ay! and for all the world, old England especially. George, in a month there will be five thousand men working round this little spot. Ay! come," cried he, shouting wildly at the top of his voice, "there is plenty for all. GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! I have found it. I, Tom Robinson, I've found it, and I grudge it to no man. I, a thief that was, make a present of it to its rightful owner, and that is all the world. Here GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!"
Though George hardly understood his companion's words, he was carried away by the torrent of his enthusiasm, and even as Robinson spoke his cheeks in turn flushed and his eyes flashed, and he grasped his friend's hands warmly, and cried, "GOLD! GOLD! blessings on it if it takes me to Susan; GOLD! GOLD!"
The poor fellows' triumph and friendly exultation lasted but a moment; the words were scarce out of Robinson's mouth when to his surprise George started from him, turned very pale, but at the same time lifted his iron-shod stick high in the air and clinched his teeth with desperate resolution. Four men with shaggy beards and wild faces and murderous eyes were literally upon them, each with a long glittering knife raised in the air.
At that fearful moment George learned the value of a friend that had seen adventure and crime; rapid and fierce and unexpected as the attack was, Robinson was not caught off his guard. His hand went like lightning into his bosom, and the assailants, in the very act of striking, were met in the face by the long glistening barrels of a rifle revolver, while the cool, wicked eye behind it showed them nothing was to be hoped in that quarter from flurry, or haste, or indecision.
The two men nearest the revolver started back, the other two neither recoiled nor advanced, but merely hung fire. George made a movement to throw himself upon them; but Robinson seized him fiercely by the arm--he said steadily but sternly, "Keep cool, young man--no running among their knives while they are four. Strike across me and I shall guard you till we have thinned."
"Will you?" said Black Will, "here, pals!" The four assailants came together like a fan for a moment and took a whisper from their leader. They then spread out like a fan and began to encircle their antagonists, so as to attack on both sides at once.
"Back to the water, George," cried Robinson quickly, "to the broad part here." Robinson calculated that the stream would protect his rear, and that safe he was content to wait and profit by the slightest error of his numerous assailants; this, however, was to a certain degree a miscalculation, for the huge ruffian we have called Jem sprang boldly across the stream higher up and prepared to attack the men behind, the moment they should be engaged with his comrades. The others no sooner saw him in position than they rushed desperately upon George and Robinson in the form of a crescent, and as they came on Jem came flying knife in hand to plunge it into Robinson's back. As the front assailants neared them, true to his promise, Robinson fired across George, and the outside man received a bullet in his shoulder-blade, and turning round like a top fell upon his knees. Unluckily George wasted a blow at this man which sung idly over him, he dropping his head and losing his knife and his powers at the very moment. By this means Robinson, the moment he had fired his pistol, had no less than three assailants; one of these George struck behind the neck so furiously with a back-handed stroke of his iron-shod stick that he fell senseless at Robinson's feet. The other, met in front by the revolver, recoiled, but kept Robinson at bay while Jem sprang on him from the rear. This attack was the most dangerous of all; in fact, neither Robinson nor George had time to defend themselves against him even if they had seen him, which they did not. Now as Jem was in the very act of making his spring from the other side of the brook, a spear glanced like a streak of light past the principal combatants and pierced Jem through and through the fleshy part of the thigh, and there stood Jacky at forty yards' distance, with the hand still raised from which the spear had flown, and his emu-like eye glittering with the light of battle.
Jem, instead of bounding clear over the stream, fell heavily into the middle of it and lay writhing and floundering at George's mercy, who turning in alarm at the sound stood over him with his long deadly staff whirling and swinging round his head in the air, while Robinson placed one foot firmly on the stunned man's right arm and threatened the leader Black Will with his pistol, and at the same moment with a wild and piercing yell Jacky came down in leaps like a kangaroo, his tomahawk flourished over his head, his features entirely changed, and the thirst of blood written upon every inch of him. Black Will was preparing to run away and leave his wounded companions, but at sight of the fleet savage he stood still and roared out for mercy. "Quarter! quarter!" cried Black Will.
"Down on your knees!" cried Robinson in a terrible voice.
The man fell on his knees, and in that posture Jacky would certainly have knocked out his brains but that Robinson pointed the pistol at his head and forbade him; and Carlo, who had arrived hastily at the sound of battle, in great excitement but not with clear ideas, seeing Jacky, whom he always looked on as a wild animal, opposed in some way to Robinson, seized him directly by the leg from behind and held him howling in a vise. "Hold your cursed noise, all of you," roared Robinson. "D'ye ask quarter?"
"Quarter!" cried Black Will.
"Quarter!" gurgled Jem.
"Quarter!" echoed more faintly the wounded man. The other was insensible.
"Then throw me your knives."
The men hesitated.
"Throw me them this instant, or--"
They threw down their knives.
"George, take them and tie them up in your wipe." George took the knives and tied them up.
"Now pull that big brute out of the water or he'll drown himself." George and Jacky pulled Jem out of the water with the spear sticking in him; the water was discolored with his blood.
"Pull the spear out of him!" George pulled and Jem roared with pain, but the spear-head would not come back through the wound; then Jacky came up and broke the light shaft off close to the skin, and grasping the head drew the remainder through the wound forward, and grinned with a sense of superior wisdom.
By this time the man whom George had felled sat up on his beam ends winking and blinking and confused, like a great owl at sunrise.
Then Robinson, who had never lost his presence of mind, and had now recovered his sang-froid, made all four captives sit around together on the ground in one little lot, "While I show you the error of your ways," said he. "I could forgive a rascal but I hate a fool. You thought to keep such a secret as this all to yourselves--you dunces--the very birds in the air would carry it; it never was kept secret in any land and never will. And you would spill blood sooner than your betters should know it--ye ninny-cumpoops! What the worse are you for our knowing it? If a thousand knew it to-day would that lower the price of gold a penny an ounce? No! All the harm they could do you would be this, that some of them would show you where it lies thickest, and then you'd profit by it. You had better tie that leg of yours up; you have lost blood enough I should say by the look of you; haven't you got a wipe? here, take mine--you deserve it, don't you? No man's luck hurts his neighbor at this work; how clever you were, you have just pitched on the unlikeliest place in the whole gulley, and you wanted to kill the man that would have taught you which are the likelier ones. I shall find ten times as much gold before the sun sets as you will find in a week by the side of that stream; why, it hasn't been running above a thousand years or two, I should say, by the look of it; you have got plenty to learn, you bloody-minded greenhorns! Now I'll tell you what it is," continued Robinson, getting angry about it, "since you are for keeping dark what little you know, I'll keep you dark; and in ten minutes my pal here and the very nigger shall know more about gold-finding than you know, so be off, for I'm going to work. Come, march!"
"Where are we to go, mate?" said the leader sullenly.
"Do you see that ridge about three miles west? well, if we catch you on this side of it we will hang you like wild cats. On the other side of it do what you like, and try all you know; but this gully belongs to us now; you wanted to take something from us that did not belong to you--our blood--so now we take something from you that didn't belong to us a minute or two ago. Come, mizzle, and no more words, or--" and he pointed the tail of his discourse with his revolver.
The men rose, and with sullen, rueful, downcast looks moved off in the direction of the boundary; but one remained behind, the man was Jem.
"Captain, I wish you would let me join in with you!"
"Well, captain, you've lent me your wipe, and I think a deal of it, for it's what I did not deserve; but that is not all. You are the best man, and I like to be under the best man if I must be under anybody."
Robinson hesitated a moment. "Come here," said he. The man came and fronted him. "Look me in the face! now give me your hand--quick, no thinking about how." The man gave him his hand readily. Robinson looked into his eyes. "What is your name?"
"Jem, we take you on trial."
Jem's late companions, who perfectly comprehended what was passing, turned and hooted the deserter; Jem, whose ideas of repartee were primitive, turned and hooted them in reply.
While the men were retreating Robinson walked thoughtfully with his hands behind him, backward and forward, like a great admiral on his quarter deck--enemy to leeward. Every eye was upon him and watched him in respectful, inquiring silence. "Knowledge is power;" this was the man now, the rest children.
"What tools have you?"
"There is a spade and trowel in that bush, captain."
"Fetch them, George. Hadn't you a pan?"
"No, captain; we used a calabash. He will find it lower down."
George, after a little search, found all these objects, and brought them back. "Now," cried Robinson, "these greenhorns have been washing in a stream that runs now, but perhaps in the days of Noah was not a river at all; but you look at the old bed of a stream down out there. That was a much stronger stream than this in its day, and it ran for more than a hundred thousand years before it dried up."
"How can you tell that?" said George, resuming some of his incredulity.
"Look at those monstrous stones in it here, there and everywhere. It has been a powerful stream to carry such masses with it as that, and it has been running many thousand years, for see how deep it has eaten into its rocky sides here and there. That was a river, my lads, and washed gold down for hundreds of thousands of years before ever Adam stood on the earth."
The men gave a hurrah, and George and Jacky prepared to run and find the treasure. "Stop," cried Robinson, "you are not at the gold yet. Can you tell in what parts of the channel it lies thick and where there isn't enough to pay the labor of washing it? Well, I can--look at that bend where the round pebbles are collected so; there was a strong eddy there. Well, under the ridge of that eddy is ten times as much gold lying as in the level parts. Stop a bit again. Do you know how deep or how shallow it lies--do you think you can find it by the eye? Do you know what clays it sinks through, as if they were a sieve, and what stops it like an iron door? Your quickest way is to take Captain Robinson's time--and that is now."
He snatched the spade, and giving full vent to the ardor he had so long suppressed with difficulty, plunged down a little declivity that led to the ancient stream, and drove his spade into its shingle, the debris of centuries of centuries. George sprang after him, his eyes gleaming with hope and agitation; the black followed in wonder and excitement, and the wounded Jem limped last, and, unable through weakness to work, seated himself with glowing eyes upon that ancient river's bank.
"Away with all this gravel and shingle--these are all newcomers--the real bed of the stream is below all this, and we must go down to that."
Trowel and spade and tomahawk went furiously to work, and soon cleared away the gravel from a surface of three or four feet.
Beneath this they found a bed of gray clay.
"Let us wash that, captain," said Jem eagerly.
"No! Jem," was the reply; "that is the way novices waste their time. This gray clay is porous, too porous to hold gold--we must go deeper."
Tomahawk, spade and trowel went furiously to work again.
"Give me the spade," said George, and he dug and shoveled out with herculean strength and amazing ardor; his rheumatism was gone and nerves came back from that very hour. "Here is a white clay."
"Let me see it. Pipe-clay! go no deeper, George; if you were to dig a hundred feet you would not find an ounce of gold below that."
George rested on his spade. "What are we to do, then? try somewhere else?"
"Not till we have tried here first."
"But you say there is nothing below this pipe-clay."
"No more there is."
"But I don't say there is nothing above it!!!"
"Well, but there is nothing much above it except the gray, without 'tis this small streak of brownish clay; but that is not an inch thick."
"George! in that inch lies all the gold we are likely to find; if it is not there we have only to go elsewhere. Now while I get water you stick your spade in and cut the brown clay away from the white it lies on. Don't leave a spot of the brown sticking to the white--the lower part of the brown clay is the likeliest."
A shower having fallen the day before, Robinson found water in a hole not far distant. He filled his calabash and returned; meantime George and Jacky had got together nearly a barrowful of the brown or rather chocolate-colored clay, mixed slightly with the upper and lower strata, the gray and white.
"I want yon calabash and George's as well." Robinson filled George's calabash two-thirds full of the stuff, and pouring some water upon it, said good-naturedly to Jem, "There--you may do the first washing, if you like."
"Thank you, captain," said Jem, who proceeded instantly to stir and dissolve the clay and pour it carefully away as it dissolved. Jacky was sent for more water, and this, when used as described, had left the clay reduced to about one-sixth of its original bulk.
"Now, captain," cried Jem in great excitement.
"No, it's not now, captain, yet," said Robinson; "is that the way you do pan-washing?"
He then took the calabash from Jem, and gave him Jacky's calabash two-thirds full of clay to treat like the other, and this being done he emptied the dry remains of one calabash into the other, and gave Jem a third lot to treat likewise. This done, you will observe he had in one calabash the results of three first washings. But now he trusted Jem no longer. He took the calabash and said, "You look faint, you are not fit to work; besides you have not got the right twist of the hand yet, my lad. Pour for me, George." Robinson stirred and began to dissolve the three remainders, and every now and then with an artful turn of the hand he sent a portion of the muddy liquid out of the vessel. At the end of this washing there remained scarce more than a good handful of clay at the bottom. More water was poured on this. "Now," said Robinson, "we shall know this time, and if you see but one spot of yellow among it, we are all gentlemen and men of fortune."
He dissolved the clay, and twisted and turned the vessel with great dexterity, and presently the whole of the clay was liquefied.
"Now," said Robinson, "all your eyes upon it, and if I spill anything I ought to keep--you tell me." He said this conceitedly but with evident agitation. He was now pouring away the dirty water with the utmost care, so that anything, however small, that might be heavier than clay should remain behind. Presently he paused and drew a long breath. He feared to decide so great a question. It was but for a moment; he began again to pour the dirty water away very slowly and carefully. Every eye was diving into the vessel. There was a dead silence!
Robinson poured with great care. There was now little more than a wine-glassful left.
Suddenly a tremendous cry broke from all these silent figures at the same instant. A cry! it was a yell. I don't know what to compare it to. But imagine that a score of wolves had hunted a horse for two centuries up and down, round and round, sometimes losing a yard, sometimes gaining one on him, and at last, after a thousand disappointments and fierce alternations of hope and despair, the horse had suddenly stumbled and the wild gluttons had pounced on him at last. Such a fierce yell of triumph burst from four human bosoms now.
"Hurrah! we are the greatest men above ground. If a hundred emperors and kings died to-day, their places could be filled to-morrow; but the world could not do without us and our find. We are gentlemen--we are noblemen--we are whatever we like to be. Hurrah!" cried Robinson.
"Hurrah!" cried George, "I see my Susan's eyes in you, you beauty."
"Hurrah!" whined Jem feebly, "let me see how much there is," and clutching the calabash he fainted at that moment from loss of blood and fell forward insensible, his face in the vessel that held the gold, and his hands grasping it so tight that great force had to be used to separate them.
They lifted Jem and set him up again, and sprinkled water in his face. The man's thick lip was cut by the side of the vessel, and more than one drop of blood had trickled down its sides and mingled with the gold-dust.
No comment was made on this at the time. They were so busy.
"There, he's coming to, and we've no time to waste in nursing the sick. Work!" and they sprang up on to the work again.
It was not what you have seen pass for work in Europe, it was men working themselves for once as they make horses work forever. Work? It was battle; it was humanity fighting and struggling with Nature for her prime treasure--(so esteemed). How they dug and scraped, and fought tooth, and spade, and nail, and trowel, and tomahawk for gold! Their shirts were wet through with sweat, yet they felt no fatigue. Their trousers were sheets of clay, yet they suffered no sense of dirt. The wounded man recovered a portion of his strength, and, thirsting for gold, brought feeble hands but indomitable ardor to the great cause. They dug, they scraped, they bowed their backs, and wrought with fury and inspiration unparalleled; and when the sun began to decline behind the hills these four human mutes felt injured. They lifted their eyes a moment from the ground, and cast a fretful look at the great, tranquil luminary.
"Are you really going to set this afternoon the same as usual, when we need your services so?"
Would you know why that wolfish yell of triumph? Would you see what sight so electrified those gloating eyes and panting bosoms? Would you realize that discovery, which in six months peopled that barren spot with thousands of men from all the civilized tribes upon earth, and in a few years must and will make despised Australia a queen among the nations--nations who must and will come with the best thing they have, wealth, talent, cunning, song, pencil, pen, tongue, arm, and lay them all at her feet for this one thing?
Would you behold this great discovery the same in appearance and magnitude as it met the eyes of the first discoverers, picked with a knife from the bottom of a calabash, separated at last by human art and gravity's great law from the meaner dust it had lurked in for a million years--Then turn your eyes hither, for here it is:
[Knife handle drawing