The Land of The Lost
During the innkeeper's absence Bart had seized the opportunity to decamp with the mothertincture and not a trace of him was to be found. Upmore wandered about for a while in fruitless search, then made his way into the dining-room. In a corner lay his late visitor's luggage, consisting of a flour-bag and a haversack, as the young man had thrown them down when he came in. The innkeeper's attention was arrested by the sight of these objects, and closing the door, he commenced a hasty examination. The flour-bag, he soon determined, contained nothing but clothes, and this he tied up again after thrusting his hand to the bottom. The contents of the haversack were of a more miscellaneous description, but still consisted mainly of wearing apparel. A couple of volumes of the "Canterbury Poets" furnished him with the information he sought, having inscribed on the flyleaf the name "Hugh Hilton Clifford" in a round, boyish hand. Upmore sucked in his breath and whistled softly as he read the name.
At this juncture he was disturbed by the sound of a horse cantering up to the door of the hostelry, which was immediately followed by the loud tapping of a whip on one of the verandah posts. Hastily restoring the contents of the haversack to their places, Upmore made his way to the verandah.page 24
Drawn up close to the house was a man of between thirty and forty on a flea-bitten grey. He was well clad, and had the appearance of a person well to do. In figure he was slightly below middle height, broad-shouldered, and well-proportioned. His face was ornamented with a moustache and short, curling, brown beard. His eyes were handsome and well opened—they were, if anything, too well opened, and lent to his physiognomy a somewhat insolent and overbearing expression. He spoke in a strong, swift, slightly authoritative voice.
The innkeeper greeted him by the name of Roller.
"I am going on," said the new-comer, "as far as the Maori settlement. The beggars are not keeping to the terms of their contract; there have not been half a dozen logs drawn this last fortnight."
"There's been a death there, Mr. Roller," said the innkeeper apologetically.
"That's neither here nor there," returned Roller.
"If a friend of mine were to die they would not consider it a sufficient excuse for my withholding payment. A contract's a contract."
"Well," said the innkeeper, "no doubt they'll put things straight when the tangi is over."
"They're twenty logs behind," said Roller.
Upmore was silent.
"Well," said the other, wheeling his horse, "I thought I'd let you know as you are interested in the business. I am really doing your work in rowing them up."
"I don't see that," said Upmore quickly.
Roller looked slightly aggressive. "Not after guaranteeing completion?" he asked.
"That's a mere matter of form," said Upmore uneasily.page 25
"Form be hanged!" said Roller; "you know better than that. But we'll talk it over when I return."
"Very good, Mr. Roller," said Upmore mildly.
"I'll sleep here as usual," said Roller, moving off. "I have to catch the Auckland boat in the morning." He touched the horse with a long, bright spur and cantered swiftly along the road, his form being shortly concealed by the cloud of dust that rose in his tracks.
Again Upmore entered the dining-room, and again he was disturbed in his employment—this time by the sound of a heavy step entering the bar.
His second visitor was a man over six feet in height, massively framed, with long, sinewy arms, and large, hairy hands. His head was singularly out of proportion with his body, being remarkably long and narrow, and the incongruous effect thus created was enhanced by the manner in which his hair was cropped close to his skull. His eyes were small and light in colour.
"'D evenin', boss," he said, looking keenly at the innkeeper.
Upmore nodded reflectively.
"I'll take a nobbier of rum," said the man.
The innkeeper supplied him, and while he drank it looked curiously at him as though endeavouring to arouse some sleeping memory.
"Seem to recollect me, boss?" asked the fellow, setting down his glass and wiping his lips.
"I seem to have met you before," said Upmore slowly.
The man nodded, winked one eye, and set his elbows on the counter. "How about the price of gum those times?" he said.
The innkeeper looked puzzled. "The price of gum?" he repeated.page 26
"You never heard of New Caledonia," said the other, "not you."
Upmore started and looked more closely at his companion. "It's Robert Brice," he said under his breath.
Brice laughed. "There used to be a bit of a fringe round it them times," he said, stroking his face and chin. "But I knew you wasn't the sort to cut an old pal."
"I thought you got five years for some affair or other," said Upmore.
"Five and fifteen months' conduct makes three nine, and I'm through with it."
"Fifteen months," said Upmore, in a voice which despite himself had an aggrieved ring; "that is a big allowance to make."
"Not so big, after all, guv'nor," said Brice, "when it's yourself as is gettin' it. You've got to 'sperience these things to get the hang of them."
"And what are you doing out here?" Upmore asked, after a pause.
"Gum-digging," replied Brice. "That and lookin' round for a soft thing."
"You've come to a poor place," said Upmore. "Why didn't you stay in town?"
"Overdone," said Brice, with a nod. "Four years ago," he went on reflectively, "I was in a fair way to a pile. If it hadn't been for that blamed cheque cropping up six months after I had forgotten it, I'd have a full pocket now. There was whips of money in it. It couldn't last, you know, but while it held out it would be a fair pour."
"You are talking of the Caledonian," said Upmore. "The Caledonian—— Give us another nobbler. Now page 27see 'ere. I'd got the thing on the move, you understand. There was a schooner in it. We could land the stuff comfortable at ten pound a ton. What was the price of kauri? Don't you make no mistake, there was twenty pound profit on every ton we shipped, and no risk."
"It couldn't last," said Upmore; "it would have blasted the kauri trade in less than a year."
"Let it last six months," said the other; "it's enough."
"Ah, well, it's no good talking of it now; the thing has been blown on. I don't see what you can do with gum, anyhow, these times. You've come to the wrong place."
"Ain't there a lay of any kind?" asked Brice. "If so, I'm on it."
Upmore shook his head. "Where are you camping?" he asked.
"'Bout a mile down the creek. Got a doss with a man they call Sandy George."
"Well," said Upmore after a pause, "come up again some other day. I'm busy now. Besides, I am expecting Roller every minute."
"What of that?" exclaimed Brice. "I am not afraid to face him."
"Perhaps not, but there might be some unpleasantness in meeting a man whose cheque you had altered and who got you gaoled for it."
"There might so," said Brice significantly.
"But I'll have none of that here."
Brice reflected and changed his tone. "Revenge is a poor lay," he said; "it never filled a man's stomach. There's ways of gettin' even in business, and they do a man more credit. Mind you, I don't say Roller and page 28me 'as played our game through; there's cards yet on my side, anyway."
"I know nothing about that," said Upmore, "and don't want to. All I've got to look after is the respectability of my house."
"Just so, boss," said the man cheerfully. "Respectability's a good draw. Well, 'ere's to you." He drained his glass, put down the money, and moved to the door.
Upmore, mollified by the obsequience of the other, followed him. "Come back some other day," he said; "any time when you have nothing better to do."
"Right yer are, boss," said Brice. He swung away as he spoke with a strong, ungainly stride, his small head swaying on his long, willowy neck.
Something in the henlike motion of this part of Brice's anatomy stirred the sombre imagination of the innkeeper till, clutching his own throat, he turned back into the house.