A Simpleton by Charles Reade
Phoebe's tears at parting made Staines feel uncomfortable, and he said so.
"Pooh, pooh!" said Falcon, "crying for nothing does a woman good."
Christopher stared at him.
Falcon's spirits rose as they proceeded. He was like a boy let loose from school. His fluency and charm of manner served, however, to cheer a singularly dreary journey.
The travellers soon entered on a vast and forbidding region, that wearied the eye; at their feet a dull, rusty carpet of dried grass and wild camomile, with pale-red sand peeping through the burnt and scanty herbage. On the low mounds, that looked like heaps of sifted ashes, struggled now and then into sickliness a ragged, twisted shrub. There were flowers too, but so sparse, that they sparkled vainly in the colorless waste, which stretched to the horizon. The farmhouses were twenty miles apart, and nine out of ten of them were new ones built by the Boers since they degenerated into white savages: mere huts, with domed kitchens behind them. In the dwelling-house the whole family pigged together, with raw flesh drying on the rafters, stinking skins in a corner, parasitical vermin of all sorts blackening the floor, and particularly a small, biting, and odoriferous tortoise, compared with which the insect a London washerwoman brings into your house in her basket, is a stroke with a feather--and all this without the excuse of penury; for many of these were shepherd kings, sheared four thousand fleeces a year, and owned a hundred horses and horned cattle.
These Boers are compelled, by unwritten law, to receive travellers and water their cattle; but our travellers, after one or two experiences, ceased to trouble them; for, added to the dirt, the men were sullen, the women moody, silent, brainless; the whole reception churlish. Staines detected in them an uneasy consciousness that they had descended, in more ways than one, from a civilized race; and the superior bearing of a European seemed to remind them what they had been, and might have been, and were not; so, after an attempt or two, our adventurers avoided the Boers, and tried the Kafirs. They found the savages socially superior, though their moral character does not rank high.
The Kafir cabins they entered were caves, lighted only by the door, but deliciously cool, and quite clean; the floors of puddled clay or ants' nests, and very clean. On entering these cool retreats, the flies that had tormented them shirked the cool grot, and buzzed off to the nearest farm to batten on congenial foulness. On the fat, round, glossy babies, not a speck of dirt, whereas the little Boers were cakes thereof. The Kafir would meet them at the door, his clean black face all smiles and welcome. The women and grown girls would fling a spotless handkerchief over their shoulders in a moment, and display their snowy teeth, in unaffected joy at sight of an Englishman.
At one of these huts, one evening, they met with something St. Paul ranks above cleanliness even, viz., Christianity. A neighboring lion had just eaten a Hottentot faute de mieux; and these good Kafirs wanted the Europeans not to go on at night and be eaten for dessert. But they could not speak a word of English, and pantomimic expression exists in theory alone. In vain the women held our travellers by the coat-tails, and pointed to a distant wood. In vain Kafir pere went on all-fours and growled sore. But at last a savage youth ran to the kitchen--for they never cook in the house--and came back with a brand, and sketched, on the wall of the hut, a lion with a mane down to the ground, and a saucer eye, not loving. The creature's paw rested on a hat and coat and another fragment or two of a European. The rest was fore- shortened, or else eaten.
The picture completed, the females looked, approved, and raised a dismal howl.
"A lion on the road," said Christopher gravely.
Then the undaunted Falcon seized the charcoal, and drew an Englishman in a theatrical attitude, left foot well forward, firing a gun, and a lion rolling head over heels like a buck rabbit, and blood squirting out of a hole in his perforated carcass.
The savages saw, and exulted. They were so off their guard as to confound representation with fact; they danced round the white warrior, and launched him to victory.
"Aha!" said Falcon, "I took the shine out of their lion, didn't I?"
"You did: and once there was a sculptor who showed a lion his marble group, a man trampling a lion, extracting his tongue, and so on; but report says it did not convince the lion."
"Why, no; a lion is not an ass. But, for your comfort, there are no lions in this part of the world. They are myths. There were lions in Africa. But now they are all at the Zoo. And I wish I was there too."
"In what character--of a discontented animal--with every blessing? They would not take you in; too common in England. Hallo! this is something new. What lots of bushes! We should not have much chance with a lion here."
"There are no lions: it is not the Zoo," said Falcon; but he spurred on faster.
The country, however, did not change its feature; bushes and little acacias prevailed, and presently dark forms began to glide across at intervals.
The travellers held their breath, and pushed on; but at last their horses flagged; so they thought it best to stop and light a fire and stand upon their guard.
They did so, and Falcon sat with his rifle cocked, while Staines boiled coffee, and they drank it, and after two hours' halt, pushed on; and at last the bushes got more scattered, and they were on the dreary plain again. Falcon drew the rein, with a sigh of relief, and they walked their horses side by side.
"Well, what has become of the lions?" said Falcon jauntily. He turned in his saddle, and saw a large animal stealing behind them with its belly to the very earth, and eyes hot coals; he uttered an eldrich screech, fired both barrels, with no more aim than a baby, and spurred away, yelling like a demon. The animal fled another way, in equal trepidation at those tongues of flame and loud reports, and Christopher's horse reared and plunged, and deposited him promptly on the sward; but he held the bridle, mounted again, and rode after his companion. A stern chase is a long chase; and for that or some other reason he could never catch him again till sunrise. Being caught, he ignored the lioness, with cool hauteur: he said he had ridden on to find comfortable quarters: and craved thanks.
This was literally the only incident worth recording that the companions met with in three hundred miles.
On the sixth day out, towards afternoon, they found by inquiring they were near the diamond washings, and the short route was pointed out by an exceptionally civil Boer.
But Christopher's eye had lighted upon a sort of chain of knolls, or little round hills, devoid of vegetation, and he told Falcon he would like to inspect these, before going farther.
"Oh," said the Boer, "they are not on my farm, thank goodness! they are on my cousin Bulteel's;" and he pointed to a large white house about four miles distant, and quite off the road. Nevertheless, Staines insisted on going to it. But first they made up to one of these knolls, and examined it; it was about thirty feet high, and not a vestige of herbage on it; the surface was composed of sand and of lumps of gray limestone very hard, diversified with lots of quartz, mica, and other old formations.
Staines got to the top of it with some difficulty, and examined the surface all over. He came down again, and said, "All these little hills mark hot volcanic action--why, they are like boiling earth- bubbles--which is the very thing, under certain conditions, to turn carbonate of lime into diamonds. Now here is plenty of limestone unnaturally hard; and being in a diamond country, I can fancy no place more likely to be the matrix than these earth-bubbles. Let us tether the horses, and use our shovels."
They did so; and found one or two common crystals, and some jasper, and a piece of chalcedony all in little bubbles, but no diamond. Falcon said it was wasting time.
Just then the proprietor, a gigantic, pasty colonist, came up, with his pipe, and stood calmly looking on. Staines came down, and made a sort of apology. Bulteel smiled quietly, and asked what harm they could do him, raking that rubbish. "Rake it all avay, mine vriends," said he: "ve shall thank you moch."
He then invited them languidly to his house. They went with him, and as he volunteered no more remarks, they questioned him, and learned his father had been a Hollander, and so had his vrow's. This accounted for the size and comparative cleanliness of his place. It was stuccoed with the lime of the country outside, and was four times as large as the miserable farmhouses of the degenerate Boers. For all this, the street door opened on the principal room, and that room was kitchen and parlor, only very large and wholesome. "But, Lord," as poor dear Pepys used to blurt out--"to see how some folk understand cleanliness!" The floor was made of powdered ants' nests, and smeared with fresh cow-dung every day. Yet these people were the cleanest Boers in the colony.
The vrow met them, with a snow-white collar and cuffs of Hamburgh linen, and the brats had pasty faces round as pumpkins, but shone with soap. The vrow was also pasty-faced, but gentle, and welcomed them with a smile, languid, but unequivocal.
The Hottentots took their horses, as a matter of course. Their guns were put in a corner. A clean cloth was spread, and they saw they were to sup and sleep there, though the words of invitation were never spoken.
At supper, sun-dried flesh, cabbage, and a savory dish the travellers returned to with gusto. Staines asked what it was: the vrow told him--locusts. They had stripped her garden, and filled her very rooms, and fallen in heaps under her walls; so she had pressed them, by the million, into cakes, had salted them lightly, and stored them, and they were excellent, baked.
After supper, the accomplished Reginald, observing a wire guitar, tuned it with some difficulty, and so twanged it, and sang ditties to it, that the flabby giant's pasty face wore a look of dreamy content over his everlasting pipe; and in the morning, after a silent breakfast, he said, "Mine vriends, stay here a year or two, and rake in mine rubbish. Ven you are tired, here are springbok and antelopes, and you can shoot mit your rifles, and ve vil cook them, and you shall zing us zongs of Vaderland."
They thanked him heartily, and said they would stay a few days, at all events.
The placid Boer went a-farming; and the pair shouldered their pick and shovel, and worked on their heap all day, and found a number of pretty stones, but no diamond.
"Come," said Falcon, "we must go to the river;" and Staines acquiesced. "I bow to experience," said he.
At the threshold they found two of the little Bulteels, playing with pieces of quartz, crystal, etc., on the door-stone. One of these stones caught Staines's eye directly. It sparkled in a different way from the others: he examined it: it was the size of a white haricot bean, and one side of it polished by friction. He looked at it, and looked, and saw that it refracted the light. He felt convinced it was a diamond.
"Give the boy a penny for it," said the ingenious Falcon, on receiving the information.
"Oh!" said Staines. "Take advantage of a child?"
He borrowed it of the boy, and laid it on the table, after supper. "Sir," said he, "this is what we were raking in your kopjes for, and could not find it. It belongs to little Hans. Will you sell it us? We are not experts, but we think it may be a diamond. We will risk ten pounds on it."
"Ten pounds!" said the farmer. "Nay, we rob not travellers, mine vriend."
"But if it is a diamond, it is worth a hundred. See how it gains fire in the dusk."
In short, they forced the ten pounds on him, and next day went to work on another kopje.
But the simple farmer's conscience smote him. It was a slack time; so he sent four Hotteatots, with shovels, to help these friendly maniacs. These worked away gayly, and the white men set up a sorting table, and sorted the stuff, and hammered the nodules, and at last found a little stone as big as a pea that refracted the light. Staines showed this to the Hottentots, and their quick eyes discovered two more that day, only smaller.
Next day, nothing but a splinter or two.
Then Staines determined to dig deeper, contrary to the general impression. He gave his reason: "Diamonds don't fall from the sky. They work up from the ground; and clearly the heat must be greater farther down."
Acting on this, they tried the next strata, but found it entirely barren. After that, however, they came to a fresh layer of carbonate, and here, Falcon hammering a large lump of conglomerate, out leaped, all of a sudden, a diamond big as a nut, that ran along the earth, gleaming like a star. It had polished angles and natural facets, and even a novice, with an eye in his head, could see it was a diamond of the purest water. Staines and Falcon shouted with delight, and made the blacks a present on the spot.
They showed the prize, at night, and begged the farmer to take to digging. There was ten times more money beneath his soil than on it.
Not he. He was a farmer: did not believe in diamonds. Two days afterwards, another great find. Seven small diamonds.
Next day, a stone as large as a cob-nut, and with strange and beautiful streaks. They carried it home to dinner, and set it on the table, and told the family it was worth a thousand pounds. Bulteel scarcely looked at it; but the vrow trembled and all the young folk glowered at it.
In the middle of dinner, it exploded like a cracker, and went literally into diamond-dust.
"Dere goes von tousand pounds," said Bulteel, without moving a muscle.
Falcon swore. But Staines showed fortitude. "It was laminated," said he, "and exposure to the air was fatal."
Owing to the invaluable assistance of the Hottentots, they had in less than a month collected four large stones of pure water, and a wineglassful of small stones, when, one fine day, going to work calmly after breakfast, they found some tents pitched, and at least a score of dirty diggers, bearded like the pard, at work on the ground. Staines sent Falcon back to tell Bulteel, and suggest that he should at once order them off, or, better still, make terms with them. The phlegmatic Boer did neither.
In twenty-four hours it was too late. The place was rushed. In other words, diggers swarmed to the spot, with no idea of law but digger's law.
A thousand tents rose like mushrooms; and poor Bulteel stood smoking, and staring amazed, at his own door, and saw a veritable procession of wagons, Cape carts, and powdered travellers file past him to take possession of his hillocks. Him, the proprietor, they simply ignored; they had a committee who were to deal with all obstructions, landlords and tenants included. They themselves measured out Bulteel's farm into thirty-foot claims, and went to work with shovel and pick. They held Staines's claim sacred--that was diggers' law; but they confined it strictly to thirty feet square.
Had the friends resisted, their brains would have been knocked out. However, they gained this, that dealers poured in, and the market not being yet glutted, the price was good. Staines sold a few of the small stones for two hundred pounds. He showed one of the larger stones. The dealer's eye glittered, but he offered only three hundred pounds, and this was so wide of the ascending scale, on which a stone of that importance is priced, that Staines reserved it for sale at Cape Town.
Nevertheless, he afterwards doubted whether he had not better have taken it; for the multitude of diggers turned out such a prodigious number of diamonds at Bulteel's pan, that a sort of panic fell on the market.
These dry diggings were a revelation to the world. Men began to think the diamond perhaps was a commoner stone than any one had dreamed it to be.
As to the discovery of stones, Staines and Falcon lost nothing by being confined to a thirty-foot claim. Compelled to dig deeper, they got into a rich strata, where they found garnets by the pint, and some small diamonds, and at last, one lucky day, their largest diamond. It weighed thirty-seven carats, and was a rich yellow. Now, when a diamond is clouded or off color, it is terribly depreciated; but a diamond with a positive color is called a fancy stone, and ranks with the purest stones.
"I wish I had this in Cape Town," said Staines.
"Why, I'll take it to Cape Town, if you like," said the changeable Falcon.
"You will?" said Christopher, surprised.
"Why not? I'm not much of a digger. I can serve our interest better by selling. I could get a thousand pounds for this at Cape Town."
"We will talk of that quietly," said Christopher.
Now, the fact is, Falcon, as a digger, was not worth a pin. He could not sort. His eyes would not bear the blinding glare of a tropical sun upon lime and dazzling bits of mica, quartz, crystal, white topaz, etc., in the midst of which the true glint of the royal stone had to be caught in a moment. He could not sort, and he had not the heart to dig. The only way to make him earn his half was to turn him into the travelling and selling partner.
Christopher was too generous to tell him this; but he acted on it, and said he thought his was an excellent proposal; indeed, he had better take all the diamonds they had got to Dale's Kloof first, and show them to his wife, for her consolation: "And perhaps," said he, "in a matter of this importance, she will go to Cape Town with you, and try the market there."
"All right," said Falcon.
He sat and brooded over the matter a long time, and said, "Why make two bites of a cherry? They will only give us half the value at Cape Town; why not go by the steamer to England, before the London market is glutted, and all the world finds out that diamonds are as common as dirt?"
"Go to England! What! without your wife? I'll never be a party to that. Me part man and wife! If you knew my own story"--
"Why, who wants you?" said Reginald. "You don't understand. Phoebe is dying to visit England again; but she has got no excuse. If you like to give her one, she will be much obliged to you, I can tell you."
"Oh, that is a very different matter. If Mrs. Falcon can leave her farm--"
"Oh, that brute of a brother of hers is a very honest fellow, for that matter. She can trust the farm to him. Besides, it is only a month's voyage by the mail steamer."
This suggestion of Falcon's set Christopher's heart bounding, and his eyes glistening. But he restrained himself, and said, "This takes me by surprise; let me smoke a pipe over it."
He not only did that, but he lay awake all night.
The fact is that for some time past, Christopher had felt sharp twinges of conscience, and deep misgivings as to the course he had pursued in leaving his wife a single day in the dark. Complete convalescence had cleared his moral sentiments, and perhaps, after all, the discovery of the diamonds had co-operated; since now the insurance money was no longer necessary to keep his wife from starving.
"Ah!" said he; "faith is a great quality; and how I have lacked it!"
To do him justice, he knew his wife's excitable nature, and was not without fears of some disaster, should the news be communicated to her unskilfully.
But this proposal of Falcon's made the way clearer. Mrs. Falcon, though not a lady, had all a lady's delicacy, and all a woman's tact and tenderness. He knew no one in the world more fit to be trusted with the delicate task of breaking to his Rosa that the grave, for once, was baffled, and her husband lived. He now became quite anxious for Falcon's departure, and ardently hoped that worthy had not deceived himself as to Mrs. Falcon's desire to visit England.
In short, it was settled that Falcon should start for Dale's Kloof, taking with him the diamonds, believed to be worth altogether three thousand pounds at Cape Town, and nearly as much again in England, and a long letter to Mrs. Falcon, in which Staines revealed his true story, told her where to find his wife, or hear of her, viz., at Kent Villa, Gravesend, and sketched an outline of instructions as to the way, and cunning degrees, by which the joyful news should be broken to her. With this he sent a long letter to be given to Rosa herself, but not till she should know all: and in this letter he enclosed the ruby ring she had given him. That ring had never left his finger, by sea or land, in sickness or health.
The letter to Rosa was sealed. The two letters made quite a packet; for, in the letter to his beloved Rosa, he told her everything that had befallen him. It was a romance, and a picture of love; a letter to lift a loving woman to heaven, and almost reconcile her to all her bereaved heart had suffered.
This letter, written with many tears from the heart that had so suffered, and was now softened by good fortune and bounding with joy, Staines entrusted to Falcon, together with the other diamonds, and with many warm shakings of the hand, started him on his way.
"But mind, Falcon," said Christopher, "I shall expect an answer from Mrs. Falcon in twenty days at farthest. I do not feel so sure as you do that she wants to go to England; and, if not, I must write to Uncle Philip. Give me your solemn promise, old fellow, an answer in twenty days--if you have to send a Kafir on horseback."
"I give you my honor," said Falcon superbly.
"Send it to me at Bulteel's Farm."
"All right. 'Dr. Christie, Bulteel's Farm.'"
"Well--no. Why should I conceal my real name any longer from such friends as you and your wife? Christie is short for Christopher-- that is my Christian name; but my surname is Staines. Write to 'Dr. Staines.'"
"Yes. Did you ever hear of me?"
Falcon wore a strange look. "I almost think I have. Down at Gravesend, or somewhere."
"That is curious. Yes, I married my Rosa there; poor thing! God bless her; God comfort her. She thinks me dead."
His voice trembled, he grasped Falcon's cold hand till the latter winced again, and so they parted, and Falcon rode off muttering, "Dr. Staines! so then you are Dr. Staines."