The Land of The Lost
For two or three days afterwards Clifford continued to visit the spot to which Olive had introduced him and daily added a few pounds of gum to his store. In the evenings he sat for an hour or two, in the light of a candle in a cleft stick, scraping his day's takings and preparing them for the storekeeper.
Now and then he was visited by stray diggers, who dropped in for what they described as a "pitch." Some of these men were fairly educated, but they had all picked up the manners of the society in which they moved, one feature of which was that every other word they used was an oath, and had it been possible to convey an intelligible meaning in such fashion, there can be no doubt that the words in between would have been in exactly the same predicament.
The subject of most engrossing interest with these men at this time was the Christmas holidays, now close at hand. Clifford did not propose to make any alteration in his way of life on that account, but he found himself listening with half-sympathetic amusement to the wild proposals of his visitors. Most of them had apparently accumulated cheques for a considerable amount, but none contemplated that these sums would last them longer than a week or ten days at the outside. They counted with perfect indifference on the confidence page 44man, the spieler, the fille de joie, the predatory cabman, all of whom would swoop down on them, like so many hawks, the moment they entered the city. Nothing could have been more remote from their thoughts than to consider the conduct of these people, or indeed themselves, from an ethical standpoint. They looked forward to being fleeced and possibly maltreated with the same cheerfulness with which they regarded the memory of such adventures in the past, and the humour of these engagements was apparently the only feature which had made an indelible impression on their minds.
The mass of mankind is constructed on this plan, but we are learning how to cover up the deeps with education and various other top-dressings. Pretty and elegant flowers spring up and clothe us about, giving a smiling and respectable appearance, but the imprisoned lava below sometimes burns them off at the roots.
Out on the field Clifford came across men of this type daily. Some were from the universities of England; some were ignorant but with their wits sharpened to an extraordinary degree by experience. They were from all countries—from Austria in great numbers—and of all trades and professions. The type of the settler who had a wife and family somewhere beyond the confines of the field was also well represented. He was of a tamer species, but also of a stronger and sterner. He worked methodically, with his eye steadfastly riveted on the future; and that future would probably behold him grey-headed but active and rosy, the owner of lands and houses, of cattle and horses, and of a handsome family, living in an earthly paradise, the work of their own hands. There was also another class, less desirable in character and page 45not so easy to define in words. These men moved rapidly from field to field, living on the gullibility of the storekeepers or loafing on the good nature of the diggers. Some of them were fugitives from justice. There was also a sprinkling of mechanics and clerks out of employment; old men for whom the world had no further use, and who preferred independence to the strict, prison-like rule of a poor man's refuge; and, last, but not least, a sprinkling of natives of both sexes.
To this last class belonged Clifford's nearest neighbours on the field. A couple of families, comprising old and young men, women, and children, had built themselves a shelter of palm leaves two or three hundred yards down the creek, and thence in the still evenings he heard the sound of their voices above the liquid rustle of the stream. They were frequent visitors to the tent, especially two of the women, who on one occasion, finding him in the throes of breadmaking, took that task upon themselves, no little to the improvement of his larder. From these people he gleaned a good deal of information which was of service to him in his search for gum.
Jess Olive came also to be a frequent visitor at the tent, and the reason he gave for his coming was a peculiar one.
"What made you select this spot, young un?" he asked once.
It was a Sunday afternoon, warm, drowsy, and still, and having tried the banks of the creek, they had retired into the tent out of the strong sunlight.
"I don't know," said Clifford. "It may have been the cabbage tree or it may have been because it was the first suitable spot I came to. Why?"page 46
"This," replied Jess, "is the grandest spot in the whole bush, and often and often have I come here to look at the noble trees. Here stands the King of the Bush, the like of whom is not to be found anywhere else in New Zealand,"
"Tell me what he is like," said Clifford,
"When he was young," said Jess slowly, "he entered into partnership with the sun, and from that hour the earth and the sky were his to draw upon. God gave him an eternity of time, and slowly, hour by hour, century by century, he rose up out of the ground and stretched himself among the clouds."
"Can you see him from where you sit?" Clifford asked curiously.
Jess turned his eyes to the opening, and at the same moment it was darkened by the shadow of a man coming in under the fly.
"So this is where you are, Clifford?" said a weary voice, which Clifford recognised as the property of Bart. "And the King of the Diggers here too—save your majesty." The tone was not all a mockery.
"Sit down," said Clifford. "What news from the 'Scarlet Man'?"
"I have chucked him," said Bart, "or he has chucked me, which is the same thing. Damn the 'Scarlet Man'!"
"Don't swear," said Jess. "What good does it do?"
Bart looked at him a moment, and the harsh lines about his face relaxed. "Well," he said, "I won't, but them's my sentiments. For instance, is there a greater brute living than Upmore?"
"Why do you go near him?" Jess asked.
"God knows!" said Bart, yawning. "Ask me an page 47easier one. Well"—brusquely to Clifford—"have you realised your ideal? What about the respectable occupation?"
"I am still of the same mind," replied Clifford.
Bart looked at him with a speculative interest. "Wait till the novelty has worn off," he said; "wait till the past begins to stretch its arms out for you and to cry 'Come back'; wait till the life hunger begins to gnaw at your heart-strings, and you know that you have placed yourself irrevocably beyond the power to satisfy it!"
"Is that the case of some?" asked Clifford.
"Of hundreds—eh, Jess?—hundreds and hundreds. When the university men and the scholars who have drifted off the track of the trade winds, and the merchant princes who have gone bung, and the geniuses who have gone bunger have trodden the cities for a year in their uppers, and the rack of necessity has broken the bones of their pride, then they come here, and the place is accursed on account of them."
Jess watched the speaker with awed fascination, a vague unhappiness in his blue eyes.
"It is not all like that," he said hesitatingly. "Most of the men who come here go away after awhile somewhere else. Some stay, and like it. I like it. There are lots of little things that keep me happy all day long."
"That's it," said Bart. "The little things make us happy because we expect nothing from them, but the big things continually disappoint us. Life is a delusion and a fraud."
"It's getting late," said Jess, rising and looking anxiously out into the glaring sunlight. "I think I will be getting home before it grows any darker."page 48
"Good-bye, O King," said Bart. "Happy lunatic!" he added, when Jess had departed out of hearing.
"What is his story?" asked Clifford.
"Another tragedy. Wife and child killed before his eyes by a falling tree in the Wairaki bush many years ago. Mad as a March hare ever since."
"I should not call him mad," objected Clifford.
"Well, then, something jarred and out of tune. I grant you the ruin is picturesque. Fancy, roaming about this gaudy, howling waste, and seeing around you the original forest as he does! What a magnificent madness, after all!"
"I wonder how he would take the real bush!" speculated Clifford.
"It's been tried, but the darkness kills him. At the back of his brain there is an impenetrable blackness of horror; he resides in a sunlit chamber in front. Well, what are you making? Tucker?"
"Glorious existence!" said Bart, rising with a weary yawn. "Some day you may even make pocket-money." With which consolatory reflection he took himself off.
A fortnight's sojourn on the field had to some extent trained Clifford's eye to the perception of detail. He no longer conceived the place as an indistinguishable whole, but as an assemblage of places of extreme diversity, and he had discovered that, from a gumdigger's point of view, certain of these places were more desirable than others. About this time it was that he made his first good find. He had been digging from seven o'clock in the morning till four in the afternoon with but poor success, a few pieces of very jagged and almost worthless gum representing the complete result page 49of his toil. Tired and disheartened, he threw himself down in a thick clump of tea tree, and was soon absorbed in watching a battle between two full-grown "animated straws" who, each mounted on his own twig, endeavoured to kick or haul his adversary from his position. Now one, extending a long front leg, would salute his opponent with a terrific cuff on the side of the head. This would be followed by furious blows from both sides, delivered with a blind passion that ensured their futility. Ultimately one insect decided that he had had enough, and let himself drop lower down the bush, while the conqueror, inflated with his victory, staggered off like a gouty general from a corporation dinner. The conceit of the creature was so comical that Clifford could not refrain from patting him on the back with a blade of grass. In an instant his long antennae became glued together and rigidly extended, his narrow, straw-like body swung gently from side to side. He had become a green twig swaying in the breeze, indistinguishable, save on close inspection, from the tea tree on which he rested.
Absorbed in this miniature drama, Clifford had taken no heed of some sharp, hard substance which was making its presence obtrusively felt beneath his chest. He now turned his attention to this object, and, to his surprise and delight, found he had been lying on the edge of a piece of gum of unknown dimensions which here protruded itself through the soil. Were the whole of it visible, it would still be the largest piece he had yet discovered; but after trying it gently with the corner of his spade, he felt sure that not only was there a part concealed, but also that that part was considerably larger than the portion exposed. Digging carefully round so as to avoid breakages, he in a few page 50minutes rolled out a fine nugget of gum weighing over fifteen pounds, but this was not all. Beneath the nugget lay several smaller pieces scattered through the soil to a depth of two feet, and when the trove was finally exhausted he found himself in possession of nearly forty pounds of first-class gum, a find with which any digger would have reason to be contented.
When finally he came to the conclusion that no more was to be found at this particular spot, he stepped out of the hole and commenced to fill his pikau. As he was engaged in this employment, stooping forward to lift the pieces from the ground, he was suddenly aware of a shadow flying between his feet and speeding instantaneously out of sight He turned swiftly to find a man just behind him, holding a spade by both hands above his head. He was a powerful-looking man, with a remarkably small head, and Clifford noticed that his teeth, revealed by a sudden drooping twitch of the lips, were ragged and discoloured.
The fellow lowered his spade to his shoulder and scratched the side of his nose. Clifford stood watching him in silence, his lips closed, his eyes phenomenally dark and steady in their gaze.
"Seem to 'ave struck it this time, matey," said the man, with a desperate attempt to appear at his ease.
"Yes, you were not here soon enough," retorted Clifford swiftly, without moving. "You are no mate of mine."
"We are all mates here," said the man doubtfully,
"By God, no!" returned Clifford in the same tone. "There had need to be few mates for such as you!"
"Why, what the cuss—— "commenced the other.
Clifford suddenly took a step towards him. "For page 51two pins," he said in a deep voice, "I'd wring your ugly head off. I feel like doing it."
"Don't balk your fancy, mate," said the man, with another glimpse of his ragged teeth.
But he was mistaken in the man with whom he had to do. Clifford instantly knocked him into the hole from which he had taken the gum.
The man sat for a moment dazed by the suddenness of the attack, then, with a fierce oath, he sprang forward, brandishing his spade.
Clifford met him half-way.
The fiendish wrong which had been, as he thought, meditated against him for the sake of a few paltry pounds of gum had turned the young man's blood to fire; the strength of his indignation was a measure of the strength of his moral nature. The encounter was desperate, but brief. Whether the resolution displayed by Clifford in again advancing on him instead of putting himself in a posture of defence, cowed his opponent, or for some other reason, he gained no advantage by his possession of a weapon. Rather the reverse, for while Clifford was able to avoid any severe blow from the spade, his assailant had no arm wherewith to defend himself from the swift, heavy blows which loosened his teeth and threatened to break his jaw. In a few moments he dropped his weapon and sheered off. Clifford instantly seized the spade and swung it to a distance across the scrub, then he pointed with his finger in the direction in which it had gone. "Go!" he said.
"You'll 'ear more about this, my fine feller," said the man.
"Go!" repeated Clifford, again advancing on him.
"Look 'ere," said the other, with a change of tone page 52and slowly drawing back. "What's the row? What 'ave I done to you, any'ow? You struck me, but I never did nothin' to you."
"Don't talk to me," said Clifford fiercely. "Do as I tell you. Go!"
"But you're so damned onreasonable. Can't you say what I've done?"
"I'm not going to argue with you. Go!"
"Did you ever see me before to-day?" persisted the man. "Not you; you never seen me. Then I arsks you what 'ave I done?"
"Are you going?" demanded Clifford, with a white-hot quietness.
The man grumbled, commenced a further expostulation, but thought better of it, as Clifford showed symptoms of moving, and retired, looking about for his spade. When he had found it, he stood for some time looking back at Clifford, who was busying himself in bagging the remainder of his gum. "I'll be even with you, you——," he cried at length.
The contemptuous strength of silence displayed by the young man maddened the grosser nature of the defeated scoundrel. He looked about for stones, and finding none, commenced to pelt his enemy with clods of earth.
Clifford moved about, apparently unconscious of the cannonade to which he was subjected, till a missile, better directed than the rest, struck him sharply on the cheek. Then he instantly dropped everything and bounded across the scrub.
The man seeing him approach, turned and fled, and Clifford, who had no idea of catching him, suffered him to gain on him till he was lost to view in the gathering night, page 53This occurred about five days before Christmas. A few days later the field was almost entirely deserted, even his Maori neighbours having packed up their chattels and ridden off on a number of weedy-looking horses to their settlement beyond the field.
Clifford continued to work on as before.
Three days after Christmas Day there befell him a singular and romantic adventure.