It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
About a fortnight after Robinson's return to the diggings two men were seated in a small room at Bevan's store. There was little risk of their being interrupted by any honest digger, for it was the middle of the day.
"I know that well enough," growled the black-maned one, "everybody knows the lucky rip has got a heavier swag than ever, but we shan't get it so cheap, if we do at all."
"He is on his guard now, night and day, and what is more he has got friends in the mine that would hang me or you either up to dry, if they but caught us looking too near his tent."
"The ruffians. Well, but if he has friends he has enemies."
"Not so many; none that I know of but you and me. I wonder what he has done to you?"
The other waived this question and replied: "I have found two parties that hate him; two that came in last week."
"Have you? then, if you are in earnest, make me acquainted with them, for I am weak-handed; I lost one of my pals yesterday."
"They caught him at work and gave him a rap over the head with a spade. The more ---- fool he for being caught. Here is to his memory."
"Ugh! what, is he, is he--"
"Dead as a herring."
"Where shall we all go to? What lawless fellows these diggers are. I will bring you the men."
For the last two months the serpentine man had wound in and out the camp, poking about for a villain of the darker sort as minutely as Diogenes did for an honest man, and dispensing liquor and watching looks and words. He found rogues galore, and envious spirits that wished the friends ill, but none of them seemed game to risk their lives against two men, one of whom said openly he would kill any stranger he caught in his tent, and whom some fifty stout fellows called Captain Robinson, and were ready to take up his quarrel like fire. But at last he fell in with two old lags, who had a deadly grudge against the captain, and a sovereign contempt for him into the bargain. By the aid of liquor he wormed out their story. This was the marrow of it: The captain had been their pal, and, while they were all three cracking a crib, had with unexampled treachery betrayed them, and got them laid by the heels for nearly a year; in fact, if they had not broken prison they would not have been here now. In short, in less than half an hour he returned with our old acquaintances, brutus and mephistopheles.
These two came half reluctant, suspicious and reserved. But at sight of Black Will they were reassured, villain was so stamped on him. With instantaneous sympathy and an instinct of confidence the three compared notes, and showed how each had been aggrieved by the common enemy. Next they held a council of war, the grand object of which was to hit upon some plan of robbing the friends of their new swag.
It was a difficult and very dangerous job. Plans were proposed and rejected, and nothing agreed upon but this, that the men should be carefully watched for days to find out where they kept their gold at night and where by day, and an attempt timed and regulated accordingly. Moreover, the same afternoon a special gang of six was formed, including Walker, which pitiful fox was greatly patronized by the black-maned lion. At sight of him, brutus, who knew him not indeed by name but by a literary transaction, was "for laying on," but his patron interposed, and, having inquired and heard the offense, bellowed with laughter, and condemned the ex-peddler to a fine of half a crown in grog. This softened brutus, and a harmonious debauch succeeded. Like the old Egyptians they debated first sober and then drunk, and to stagger my general notion that the ancients were unwise, candor compels me to own, it was while stammering, maudling, stinking and in every sense drunk that mephistopheles driveled out a scheme so cunning and so new as threw everybody and everything into the shade. It was carried by hiccoughation.
To work this scheme mephistopheles required a beautiful large new tent; the serpentine man bought it. Money to feed the gang; serpent advanced it.
Robinson's tent was about thirty yards from his claim, which its one opening faced. So he and George worked with an eye ever upon their tent. At night two men of Robinson's party patrolled armed to the teeth; they relieved guard every two hours. Captain Robinson's orders to these men, if they saw anybody doing anything suspicious after dark, were these:
First fire, Then inquire.
This general order was matter of publicity for a quarter of a mile round Robinson's tent, and added to his popularity and our rascals' perplexities.
These orders had surely the double merit of conciseness and melody; well, for all that, they were disgustingly offensive to one true friend of the captain, viz., to George Fielding.
"What is all the gold in the world compared with a man's life?" said he, indignantly.
"An ounce of it is worth half a dozen such lives as some here," was the cool reply.
"I have heard you talk very different. I mind when you could make excuses even for thieves that were never taught any better, poor unfortunate souls."
"Did I?" said the captain, a little taken aback. "Well, perhaps I did; it was natural, hem, under the circumstances. No! not for such thieves as these, that haven't got any honor at all."
"Yes! honor. Look here, suppose in my unconverted days I had broke into a jeweler's shop (that comes nearest to a mine) with four or five pals, do you think I should have held it lawful to rob my pals of any part of the swag just because we happened to be robbing a silversmith? Certainly not; I assure you, George, the punishment of such a nasty, sneaking, dishonorable act would be death in every gang, and cheap, too. Well, we have broken into Nature's shop here, and we are to rifle her, and not turn to like unnatural monsters, and rob our ten thousand pals."
"Thieving is thieving, in my view," was the prejudiced reply.
"And hanging is hanging--as all thieves shall find if caught convenient."
"You make my flesh creep, Tom. I liked you better when you were not so great a man, more humble like; have you forgotten when you had to make excuses for yourself; then you had Susan on your side and brought me round, for I was bitter against theft; but never so bad as you are now."
"Oh, never mind what I said in those days; why, you must be well aware I did not know what I was talking about. I had been a rogue and a fool, and I talked like both. But now I am a man of property, and my eyes are open and my conscience revolts against theft, and the gallows is the finest institution going, and next to that comes a jolly good prison. I wish there was one in this mine as big as Pentonville, then property--"
Here the dialogue was closed by the demand the pick made upon the man of property's breath. But it rankled, and on laying down the pick he burst out: "Well, to think of an honest man like you having a word to say for thieving. Why, it is a despicable trait in a gold mine. I'll go farther, I'll prove it is the sin of sins all round the world. Stolen money never thrives--goes for drink and nonsense. Now you pick and I'll wash. Theft corrupts the man that is robbed as well as the thief; drives him to despair and drink and ruin temporal and eternal. No country could stand half an hour without law!! The very honest would turn thieves if not protected, and there would be a go. Besides, this great crime is like a trunk railway, other little crimes run into it and out of it; lies buzz about it like these Australian flies--drat you! Drunkenness precedes and follows it, and perjury rushes to its defense."
"Well, Tom, you are a beautiful speaker."
"I haven't done yet. What wonder it degrades a man when a dog loses his dignity under it. Behold the dog who has stolen; look at Carlo yesterday when he demeaned himself to prig Jem's dinner (the sly brute won't look at ours). How mean he cut with his tail under his belly, instead of turning out to meet folk all jolly and waggle-um-tail-um as on other occasions--Hallo, you, sir! what are you doing so near our tent?" and up jumped the man of property and ran cocking a revolver to a party who was kneeling close to the friends' tent.
The man looked up coolly; he was on his knees.
"We are newly arrived and just going to pitch, and a digger told us we must not come within thirty yards of the captain's tent, so we are measuring the distance."
"Well, measure it--and keep it."
Robinson stayed by his tent till the man, whose face was strange to him, had measured and marked the ground. Soon after the tent in question was pitched, and it looked so large and new that the man of property's suspicions were lulled.
"It is all right," said he, "tent is worth twenty pounds at the lowest farthing."
While Black Will and his gang were scheming to get the friends' gold, Robinson, though conscious only of his general danger, grew more and more nervous as the bag grew heavier, and strengthened his defenses every day.
This very day one was added to the cause of order in a very characteristic way. I must first observe that Mr. McLaughlan had become George's bailiff, that is, on discovery of the gold he had agreed to incorporate George's flocks, to use his ground and to account to him, sharing the profits, and George running the risks. George had, however, encumbered the property with Abner as herdsman. That worthy had come whining to him lame of one leg from a blow on the head, which he convinced George Jacky had given him with his battle-ax.
"I'm spoiled for life and by your savage. I have lost my place; do something for me."
Good-hearted George did as related, and moreover promised to give Jacky a hiding if ever he caught him again. George's aversion to bloodshed is matter of history; it was also his creed that a good hiding did nobody any harm.
Now it was sheep-shearing time and McLaughlan was short of hands; he came into the mine to see whether out of so many thousands he could not find four or five who would shear instead of digging.
When he put the question to George, George shook his head doubtfully. "However," said he, "look out for some unlucky ones, that is your best chance, leastways your only one."
So McLaughlan went cannily about listening here and there to the men who were now at their dinners, and he found Ede's gang grumbling and growling with their mouths full; in short, enjoying at the same time a good dinner and an Englishman's grace.
"This will do," thought the Scot, misled like continental nations by that little trait of ours; he opened the ball.
"I'm saying--my lads--will ye gie ower this weary warrk a wee whilee and sheer a wheen sheep to me?"
The men looked in his face, then at one another, and the proposal struck them as singularly droll. They burst out laughing in his face.
McLaughlan (keeping his temper thoroughly, but not without a severe struggle). "Oh, fine I ken I'll ha'e to pay a maist deevelich price for your highnesses--aweel, I'se pay--aw thing has its price; jaast name your wage for shearing five hunder sheep."
The men whispered together. The Scot congratulated himself on his success; it would be a question of price, after all.
"We will do it for--the wool."
"Th' 'oo?--oo ay! but hoo muckle o' th' 'oo? for ye ken--"
"How muckle? why, all."
"A' the 'oo! ye blackguard, ye're no blate."
"Keep your temper, farmer, it is not worth our while to shear sheep for less than that."
"De'il go wi' ye then!" and he moved off in great dudgeon.
"Stop," cried the captain, "you and I are acquainted--you lived out Wellington way--me and another wandered to your hut one day and you gave us our supper."
"Ay, lad, I mind o' ye the noo!"
"The jolliest supper ever I had--a haggis you called it."
"Ay, did I, my fine lad. I cookit it till ye myssel. Ye meicht help me for ane."
"I will," said Captain Ede; and a conference took place in a whisper between him and his men.
"It is a' reicht the noo!" thought McLaughlan.
"We have an offer to make you," said Ede, respectfully.
"Let us hear't."
"Our party is large; we want a cook for it, and we offer you the place in return for past kindness."
"Me a cuik, y' impudent vagabond!" cried the Caledonian, red as a turkey-cock; and, if a look could have crushed a party of eight, their hole had been their grave.
McLaughlan took seven ireful steps--wide ones--then his hot anger assumed a cold, sardonic form, he returned, and with blighting satire speered this question by way of gratifying an ironical curiosity.
"An' whaat would ye ha'e the cheek t'offer a McLanghlan to cuik till ye, you that kens sae fine the price o' wark?"
"Thretty shilling the week for a McLaughlan!"
"The week," cried Ede, "nonsense--thirty shillings a day of course. We sell work for gold, sir, and we give gold for it; look here!" and he suddenly bared a sturdy brown arm, and, smacking it, cried, "That is dirt where you come from, but it is gold here."
"Ye're a fine lad," said the Scot, smoothly, "and ye've a boeny aerm," added he, looking down at it. "I'se no deny that. I'm thinking--I'll just come--and cuik till ye a wee--for auld lang syne--thretty schelln the day--an' ye'll buy the flesh o' me. I'll sell it a hantle cheaper than thir warldly-minded fleshers."
Bref, he came to be shorn, and remained to fleece.
He went and told George what he had done.
"Hech! hech!" whined he, "thir's a maist awfu' come doon for the McLaughlans---but wha wadna' stuip to lift gowd?"
He left his head man, a countryman of his own, in charge of the flocks, and tarried in the mine. He gave great satisfaction, except that he used to make his masters wait for dinner while he pronounced a thundering long benediction; but his cookery compensated the delay.
Robinson enrolled him in his police and it was the fashion openly to quiz, and secretly respect him.
Robinson also made friends with the women, in particular with one Mary McDogherty, wife of a very unsuccessful digger. Many a pound of potatoes Pat and she had from the captain, and this getting wind secured the good will of the Irish boys.