The Land of The Lost
The young man who had formed an object of such pronounced interest to the innkeeper reached his destination at sunset.
The village consisted of two stores, a church, a school, and about a dozen weatherboard cottages set on either side of a piece of metalled road a quarter of a mile in length.
The two stores stood at opposite ends of the township, one being kept by a person of the name of Armitage, who was a comparatively new comer, while the other and larger was the property of Albert Roller.
Roller's store was a collection of low, wooden buildings, connected by covered passages and comprising, in addition to the main store, a dwelling-house, houses for sorting and storing gum, a butcher's shop, and, removed some little distance away, a group of stables. It was, in fact, a typical up-country store, where the settler might supply his every need from a needle to the proverbial anchor.
Roller's storekeeper, Wilson, attended to Clifford's wants, and liking the appearance of the young fellow, took him into the house instead of consigning him to the shed reserved for sundowners.
"I suppose this is all pure enjoyment to you?" he said in allusion to the purchases the young man was making.page 30
"Why should you think so?" asked Clifford.
"Oh, it's easy to see yours is not a case of necessity. As a general thing, the digger only wants a spade, a spear, and a small stock of provisions; and he wants them on tick."
By daylight Clifford was afoot, making his way back to the inn. On arrival he found Upmore at his accustomed post on the verandah, standing in his accustomed attitude, with his hands in his pockets and one leg crossed over the other. The innkeeper regarded him critically, as though his visitor had awakened in him a fresh interest since their last meeting. However, he merely nodded in response to the young man's greeting, and made no motion to accompany him into the house. While securing his baggage Clifford looked about for the contract boarder, but he was nowhere to be seen.
"Is he in there again?" he asked as he came out.
"Bart? I expect so," Upmore replied indifferently.
"It's a wonder he survives it," commented Clifford. "How long has he been going on like this?"
"His time is nearly up," said the innkeeper. "Most men would have turned him out before this, but I like to give full value."
Clifford could not avoid reflecting on the sort of value Bart was receiving, even with occasional access to the mother-tincture; and there was a good deal of contempt in his face as he turned away and began to load himself with his various possessions. This was a task of some difficulty, and finally the innkeeper took his hands out of his pockets and assisted him.
"Why, you're as strong as a bullock!" he remarked when the job was completed. "How far are you going?"page 31
"Not very far, I expect," said Clifford, laughing and turning away; "the first suitable camping-ground will be far enough."
Upmore stood watching him till he was aware of someone stepping on to the verandah behind him, when he turned to find Brice, his visitor of the previous day.
"Who's the bloke?" asked Brice, looking over the innkeeper's shoulder.
"A new chum," said Upmore, "starting digging."
"Gum-digging, eh?" said Brice, scratching his nose.
The innkeeper's gaze followed the retreating figure. "White drill trousers," he remarked musingly, "yellow cotton socks, a blue Crimea shirt—rather a curious pattern on that shirt."
"Sort of circles like," said Brice.
The two men looked at one another, Brice being the first to shift his glance.
"Come inside," said Upmore after a pause, leading the way into the bar. The innkeeper poured out a liberal dose of rum for his visitor and helped himself to an inch of cold tea. "How are you getting on?" he asked, sipping his beverage.
"Getting on!" exclaimed Brice. "How is a man to get on in a hole like this? It looks as though it would end up in my having to work. Here's to you." And he tossed the fiery liquid down his throat.
Upmore repeated the dose, and put the bottle back on the shelf. "Come into the parlour," he said.
Brice took a sip at the fresh allowance, winked solemnly behind the innkeeper's back, and followed him.
On the table lay a pack of soiled cards, and drawing up his chair, Upmore began at first to finger them idly; page 32then suddenly he drew them out like a concertina, and ran them together again.
His visitor's jaw dropped, and he sat regarding the performance with open mouth. "Well, that's the most mi-raculous thing ever I seen!" he said at length.
Upmore started as though he had been unconscious of what he was doing. Then, observing his visitor's interest, he took the pack in his left hand, drew a swift circle in the air with the cards, and allowed them to fall into his right.
Brice drew back as from something uncanny, and the innkeeper, smiling enigmatically, began to drum the pack lightly on the table.
"I suppose you have a fair memory, Brice?" he said at length.
"Fair to medium," replied Brice, watching the innkeeper's long hands with a sort of fascination.
"Do you remember a man called Drayton whom the lawyers were anxious to find about seven years ago?"
Brice seemed to shrink suddenly together, and his gaze rose from the lean hands and became riveted on the lean face. "Can't say I do," he replied after a pause.
"Try again," said the innkeeper slowly.
Brice moistened his lips. "What devil's game are you up to?" he asked in a fierce whisper.
Upmore spread out the cards face downwards, and picked one out at random. "I thought you would remember," he said, looking at the card he had drawn. "There are only two men living who know what became of Drayton—I am the other one!"
Brice half rose from his seat, and his face looked ugly and white.
Upmore fixed him with his eye. "It's no good, page 33Brice," he said, shaking his head; "I have shared this secret with you for seven years, though you were unconscious of it. If it could keep seven it can keep longer, only now we've got to put it on a different footing. There was no reason why I should keep your secret; but now, if you are wise, there is going to be."
Brice took a pull at his glass, and it seemed to do him good. "Get it out quick," he said hoarsely.
But the innkeeper seemed in no hurry. There was, indeed, something inhuman in his slow, methodical handling of the cards as he set them up in little heaps, and drew one here and there, as though indifferent to the evident agony of his companion. At length, however, he selected some cards from the pack, and leaningover, placed them on the table one by one in front of Brice.
"What's this?" asked Brice.
"There is something very wonderful, very mysterious about cards," said Upmore, "They might almost have been designed by a superior intelligence. Why should there be four suits and four seasons; fifty-two cards and fifty-two weeks in the year? Then, counting the knaves, queens, and kings at eleven, twelve, and thirteen, there are altogether three hundred and sixty-four points, which is as near as could be got to the days of the year. Again, look at the four suits—hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades—and you get a very good image of life." He continued to look intently at Brice as he spoke.
"Blest if I know what you are driving at," said the latter.
"There is a language in cards," continued Upmore. "Look at those in front of you and tell me what they are."
"Jack o' diamonds," said Brice slowly.page 34
"Ace of clubs."
"King o' spades."
Brice bit his forefinger. "You're as deep as a well," he said, "and as dark, but I'm gettin' there. Gi' me time."
"What better image of life could you have?" asked the innkeeper. "Hearts for the affections, clubs for the passions, diamonds for wealth and all the joys of life, spades for disease and death."
"Gi' me time," repeated Brice. "F'rinstance, this 'ere jack o' diamonds, he might be a young 'un, and there might be money hangin' to 'im—I'm only sayin', mind you, but we'll turn 'im over," and he suited the action to the word. "The club's as may be and accord in' to what's most convenient—we'll turn 'im over too. As for the spade, no sense in turnin' 'im over, for them sort never tell no tales."
He looked cunningly up into the inscrutable face of the innkeeper. "What do I get out of it?" he asked.
Upmore selected a five of diamonds. "Count that in hundreds," he said.
"Done with you!" said the other, thumping his fist on the cards and rising to his feet.
Upmore continued to watch him, breathing a little quickly. "You are sure you understand? "he asked.
"White drill trousers," said Brice, checking off the item on a dirty thumb, "yellow cotton socks, blue Crimea shirt with little circles in it."
Upmore began to collect the cards and put them away. "Have another taste before you go?" he suggested.page 35
"That's me," said Brice.
They went out into the bar and stood in silence while the drink was being consumed; then Brice turned to go. Half-way to the door he swung round and looked at the innkeeper. "That's a bargain about the other business," he said.
The innkeeper looked puzzled. "What business?" he asked.
Brice slowly winked his eye, then, with a horrible relieved laugh, out he went.