It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
Crawley, who, what with the habit of cerebral hallucination due to brandy and the present flutter of his spirits and his conscience, had for a moment or two lost all the landmarks of probability, no sooner felt his hand encounter a tail--slight in size, but stiff as a pug's, and straight as a pointer's--than he uttered a dismal howl, and it is said that for a single moment he really suspected premature caudation had been inflicted on him for his crimes. But such delusions are short-lived. He slewed himself round after this tail in his efforts to see it, and squinting over his shoulder he did see it; and a warm liquid which he now felt stealing down his legs and turning cold as it went, opened his eyes still farther. It was a red spear sticking in his person--sticking tight. Jacky, who had never got so near him as he fancied, saw him about to get into a tent, and, unable to tomahawk him, did the best he could--flung a light javelin with such force and address that it pierced his coat and trousers and buried half its head in his flesh.
This spear-head, made of jagged fishbones, had to be cut out by the simple and agreeable process of making all round it a hole larger than itself. The operation served to occupy Crawley for the remaining part of the night, and exercised his vocal powers. This was the first time he had smarted in his penetrable part--the skin--and it made him very spiteful. Away went his compunction, and at peep of day he shambled out very stiff, no longer dreading, but longing to hear which of his enemies it was he had seen wrapped in flame, shrieking, and annihilated like the snuff of a candle. He came to the scene of action just as the sun rose.
But others were there before him. A knot of men stood round a black patch of scorched soil, round which were scattered little fragments of canvas burned to tinder, talking over a most mysterious affair of the night past.
It came out that the patrol, some of whom were present, had been ordered by Captain Robinson not to go their rounds as usual, but to watch in a tent near his own, since he expected an attack. Accustomed to keep awake on the move, but not in a recumbent posture, they had slept the sleep of infancy, till suddenly awakened by the sound of a pistol. Then they had run out, and had found the captain's tent in ashes, and a man lying near it sore hacked and insensible, but still breathing. They had taken him to their tent, but he had never spoken, and the affair was incomprehensible. While each was giving some wild opinion or another, a faint voice issued from the bowels of the earth, invoking aid.
Several ran to the spot, and at the bottom of an old claim full thirty feet deep they discovered on looking intently down the face of a man rising out of the clayey water. They lowered ropes and hauled him up.
"How did you come there, mate?"
"He had come into the camp in the dark, and, not knowing the ground, and having (to tell the truth) had a drop, he had fallen into the claim."
He was asked with an air of suspicion how long ago this had happened.
"More than an hour," replied the wily one.
Crawley looked at him, and being, unlike the others, acquainted with the man's features, saw, spite of the clay-cake he was enveloped in, that his whiskers were frizzled to nothing and his fiendish eyebrows gone. Then a sickening suspicion crept over him; he communicated it by a look to mephistopheles.
Acting on it he asked, with an artful appearance of friendly interest:
"But the men? the poor men that were in the tent?"
"What! the captain and his mate?"
"Why, ye fool! they are half way to Sydney by now."
"Half way to Sydney?" and a ghastly look passed between the speaker and mephistopheles.
"Ay, lad! they rode off on Moore's two best nags at midnight."
"The captain had a belt round his waist crammed with dust and bank-notes," cried another, "and the farmer a nugget as big as a pumpkin on the pommel of his saddle."
Four hours had not elapsed ere Crawley and mephistopheles were on the road to Sydney, but not on horseback. Crawley had no longer funds to buy two horses, and, even if he had, he could not have borne the saddle after the barbarous surgery of last night---the lance-head was cut out with a cheese-knife. But he and mephistopheles joined a company of successful diggers going down with their swag. On the road they constantly passed smaller parties of unfortunate diggers, who had left the mine in despair when the weather broke and the claims filled with water; and the farther they went the more wretched was the condition of those they overtook. Ragged, shoeless, hungry, foot-sore, heart-sore, poor, broken pilgrims from the shrine of Mammon.
Now it befell that, forty miles on this side Sydney, they fell in with seven such ragged specters; and, while they were giving these a little food, up came from the city a large, joyful party--the eagerness of hope and cupidity on their faces.
"Hallo! are they mad, going up to the diggings in the wet weather!"
They were questioned.
A hundred-weight of gold had been found at the diggings, and all the town was turning out to find some more such prizes; and, in fact, every mile after this they met a party, great or small, ardent, sanguine, on an almost hopeless errand.
Such is the strange and fatal no-logic of speculation. For us the rare is to turn common, and, when we have got it, be rare as ever.
mephistopheles and Crawley parted at the suburb; the former was to go to certain haunts and form a gang to seize the rich prize. Meantime Crawley would enter the town and discover where the men were lodging. If in an inn, one of the gang must go there as a well-dressed traveler, and watch his opportunity. If in a lodging, other means.
Crawley found the whole city ringing with the great nugget. Crawley put eager questions, and received ready answers. He was shown the bank up to which the men had ridden in broad daylight; the one on the big horse had the nugget on his saddle; they had taken it, and broken it, and weighed it, and sold it in the bank parlor for three thousand eight hundred pounds. Crawley did not like this, he had rather they had not converted it into paper. His next question was, whether it was known where the men lodged.
"Known! I believe you; why, they are more thought of than the governor. Everybody runs to get a word with them, gentle or simple. You will find them at the 'Ship' inn."
To the "Ship" went Crawley. He dared not be too direct in his queries, so he put them in form of a statement.
"You have got some lucky ones here, that found the great nugget?"
"Well, we had! But they are gone--been gone this two hours. Do you know them?"
"Yes," said Crawley, without fear, as they were gone. "Where are they gone, do you know?"
"Why, home, I suppose; you chaps make your money out of us, but you all run home to spend it."
"What, gone to England!" gasped Crawley.
"Ay, look! there is the ship just being towed out of the harbor."
Crawley shambled, and tore, and ran, and was just in time to see the two friends standing with beaming faces on the vessel's deck as she glided out on her voyage home.
He sat down half stupid; mephistopheles went on collecting his gang in the suburbs.
The steamer cast off and came wheeling back; the ship spread her huge white plumage, and went proudly off to sea, the blue waves breaking white under her bows.
Crawley sat glaring at all this in a state of mental collapse.