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The Story of Wild Will Enderby

Chapter II. A Remarkable Acquaintance

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Chapter II. A Remarkable Acquaintance.

I know not whether thoughts such as these passed through the mind of our nameless friend as he sat on the rock, inhaling and exhaling narcotic fumes, for he evinced no sign of emotion. His pipe exhausted, he folded his arms, and still maintained his position. As the day wore on many people passed by; for it was the time of the great Dunstan "Rush," and a host of miners were hurrying from all parts of New Zealand, and from over the sea, to participate in the golden spoils of the Molyneux, the existence whereof had recently been made known by the now famous prospectors, Hartley and Reilly. First came three men, hirsute and stalwart, each with blankets on shoulder, pannikin on belt, pick and shovel in hand. Then two, similarly accoutred, and accompanied by a huge mongrel dog, also loaded with a "swag." Then others, with a woman "of the baser sort," rude of speech, wild-eyed, with swaggering gait, slatternly. Then more, and yet more—motley groups of all ages and conditions of men. And each party as it passed, marking, as none could fail to do, the solitary figure sitting between sky and earth, greeted him with exclamations and phrases more forcible than flattering; with jests and jeers, and flouting mockery. But to jest and jeer no response made he; but still maintained a sullen silence.

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Presently there came by a man, who carried his nationality conspicuously about him.

The new comer was tall and powerfully built. His long, grave, oval face was indicative of strong will and determination. It was just such a face as one sees in old portraits of the time when King Oliver governed Britain so wisely and so well, that loyal Stuart-loving hearts grieved that the brewer's son had not been born in the purple. His beard was limited to a heavy tuft on the pointed chin. On his square, well-set head he carried an astonishing steeple-crowned beaver hat, which bore the appearance of having been industriously brushed the wrong way. A scarlet woollen shirt, with collar turned down, and open at the throat, disclosed a, neck and chest such as a modern Hercules might have envied. His arms and nether limbs (there is no such thing as perfection of form to be found amongst civilized men), were disproportioned to the rest of his frame—were over-long, in fact, and loosely-jointed. His pants—be sure they were "pants"—of blue dungaree, were carelessly tucked into Napoleon boots, once black, but now of the brown, brownest, and adorned with soiled red knee-caps, whereon were faintly depicted certain indefinite fragments of the "Bird of Freedom." Like the other passers-by he carried a "swag," also a pannikin, also a sheath-knife. Unlike the others, he carried a field-glass, suspended by a strap from the shoulder, and in his belt was a small tomahawk. Evidently he was prepared to look a-head, and, if necessary, to clear the way.

As he came along the track, with a long, steady, swinging stride, his keen grey eyes glancing around to page 8the right and to the left, he suddenly espied the man upon the rock.

"Say, stranger! you ain't struck a patch anywhere about up there, have you?"

Such was his greeting. He waited for an answer, but none was vouchsafed. He watched for a movement, but in vain. Forthwith he proceeded in a leisurely, business-like way to disencumber himself of his swag. Then using his hands trumpet-fashion, he hailed thus—

"Stone ahoy! what sort of weather is it in your longitude?"

He might as well have hailed a stone man.

The American (for of course he was an American) still in the same deliberative manner, pulled out a lump of unmistakeable "honeydew," transferred a goodly-sized plug to his left check, chewed away at it some time in solemn silence, aimed a well-directed shot at an unoffending tussock, and, having thus relieved his feelings, he sat down, quietly observing, "Well, I'm darned if this ain't a circumstance!"

Whether any subtle magnetic influences disturbed the equilibrium of the other's mental atmosphere I do not pretend to know. What I do know is that he once or twice shifted his position, as if restless and uneasy under the persistent scrutiny to which he was subjected. All at once he sprang to his feet and demanded with much vehemence—

"Why do you annoy me? Why don't you go on your way, and leave me alone?"

"Oho! Thought I'd rouse the British lion somehow," quoth the American. "Well, my venerable page 9orphan, when I see a something sitting on a rock in such high latitudes, I want to know whether it's a man or whether it's a monkey. Which is it, Sir?"

The Briton retorted in a torrent of passionate invecive, whereat the American laughed—laughed consumedly, insomuch that nothing but long practice prevented the honeydew from slipping down his windpipe, and summarily concluding the argument.

It was a fair contest between Mirth and Anger, and Mirth had very much the best of it. In a few seconds the angry man descended from his lofty pedestal, and proceeded to argue the point on level ground. It may be that he contemplated a resort to the argumentum ad hominem; but if so, his purpose melted away before the good humor of his interlocutor. Laughter is infectious, and after sundry facial contortions, indicative of a desire to maintain a proper gravity of demeanour, he fairly 'caved in' and joined in the merriment. Soon, however, the old wrathful feeling resumed its sway, and therewithal a savage light, not pleasant to contemplate, glistened in his eyes.

"When you have quite finished laughing," he said, "perhaps you'll explain."

"Certainly, sir, nothing could be fairer. But I ain't quite done yet. I always laugh on principle, sir, when I get a right smart chance like this. I consider laughing one of the most important functions of the human system. It cheers the heart, recuperates the constitution, improves the countenance, and beats Perry Davis's Painkiller all to smash. Say—you havn't gone and poisoned your grandmother, have you, sir?"

"Poisoned my grandmother? What do you mean?"

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"Oh, nothing particular. Only you do look as if you had stifled some respectable old female of a serious turn of mind, and traded souls with her afterwards."

The man of the rock answered with a scowl. Whereupon the American smiled blandly. The first shouldered his swag and made for the track: the other ollowed suit.

"Now, look here," growled the Briton, "If you are going on, I am not. If you are not, I am, that's all."

"Whew!" whistled the American. "Now I call that enough to make any free citizen feel wrathy. But I'm a good-tempered man myself, I am. And I've kind of taken a notion to you, because, you are eccentric. In a general way there's always something in eccentric folk. And when I observed you making an object of yourself on the top of that big stone, I concluded you'd be worth studying. So I mean to have your company just as far as the Dunstan. Yes, sirree! You bet!"

Then there commenced between these two a contest of endurance. The Briton sat down on one tussock; the American sat upon another. The Briton filled his pipe and smoked; the American chewed his quid and expectorated. And still along the track travelled groups of miners, with whom the American exchanged friendly salutations. But never a word spake the Briton.

But the contest was unequal. The American possessed and exercised that mental power (call it mesmeric, if you will) which is irrestible when brought to bear upon inferior organisations. It was an Armstrong battery against a Waterloo cannon.

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"Guess you're improving company, you are;" quoth the American, after some time had thus been spent. "You would be a very valuable passenger on a China voyage. No fear of scurvy on board if you only showed the light of your countenance to the sailors once a week. Don't think they'd stand it oftener, though. You'd have to be chained up in the fore-hold, and only let out on occasions; or I am darned if I don't think you'd raise a mutiny."

This brought the other to his feet. "Who the mischief are you?" he exclaimed; and a smile rippled over his face, despite his efforts to restrain it.

"Well, now, I reckon that's the only sensible thing you've said yet. My name, sir, is Pratt—George Washington Pratt. You see, some of our people are pious, and some are patriotic. It kind of runs in families. When they are pious they mostly give their youngsters Scripture names, such as Obadiah or Nathan, or Aminadab. But they as are patriotic take a name that some great man has put a varnish on. Now, my respected progenitor had a notion that Mr. George Washington occupied the topmost pinnacle of everlasting glory, as I heard a Congress man say when he was stumping it down to Iowa. That's where I was raised, sir. So he bestowed on this child the name of that illustrious man, and I ain't seen anybody yet powerful enough to annex it."

The contest was over. The pair were travelling amicably together, when Mr. George Pratt's explanation ended.

"And now, sir," continued Mr Pratt, "might I pre-page 12sume to enquire how your helps label your portmantys when you make the grand tower?"

"You want to know my name? Well—Harry.

"That's an amazing short handle for a full-grown man. It jest is. Do you ordinarily spell it in one word; or do you sometimes spell it in two?"

"Oh! it's of no consequence. Call me Harry Grey. Will that satisfy your Yankee curiosity?"

"Yes, sirree. Guess it's a purser's name, but that's no business of mine. A man's got a right to call himself what he darn please in a free country. But see here, Mr. Grey, don't you take every one from the States for a Yank. Every Yank is an American; but every American, ain't a Yank, any more than every European is a Britisher. I'm from the Western States, sir, I am; and our folks don't muchly approbate being called Yanks."

"Thank you for the caution," said Harry, who was rapidly brightening under the influence of his companion's humour. "I'll take care not to call a Western statesman a Yankee again, Mr. Sprat."

"Pratt, sir, is my name. Spell it with two t's, sir, if you please. Suppose you've heard of our people?"

"Why, no," replied Harry, "I can't say that I have."

"Well, now, that's curious, that is. It's what I call a circumstance. The Pratts, sir, are an important institution in the States. They count some, they do. Orson Pratt and his she-cousin Belinda are enrolled in what you Britishers call the 'blazing scroll of fame,' though why it should blaze I ain't exactly sure, except it's a case of spontaneous combustion, owing probably to too much calliper and turtle fat. There's-a branch of page 13our family I've heard tell in your country, sir, but they are rather small potatoes, and don't count."

Mr George W. Pratt and Harry Grey journeyed to the Dunstan in peace and amity. The American's geniality acted upon Harry's moroseness like the beams of the summer sun on an Alpine glacier, thawing his reserve, and—so to phrase it—eliciting a pleasant rivulet of conversation. And, as they waited on the bank of the Manuherikia for their turn to cross in the ferryboat, George Washington said:—

"See, here, now. I aint't got any pardner; I'm just paddling my own canoe. Suppose we pull oars together. What say?"

And the compact was sealed on the spot.