Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania
Chapter XIX Mr Schaeffer unexpectedly makes a discovery which leads me to uncover another secret
Chapter XIX Mr Schaeffer unexpectedly makes a discovery which leads me to uncover another secret
We marched along the courses of the streams flowing into the bay of New Plymouth and returned to town by a different route from the one by which we had left. On the final day of our march the last vestiges of discipline disappeared in spite of the strenuous efforts of our commanding officer and his staff. I deserted my place in the ambulance unit. Who would blame me? Even the officers left the column to greet their impatient wives, to see the progress of the oil drills, or simply to stop at the nearest roadside farm and amaze their gaping friends with an account of our ineffectual expedition. Charles and I rushed across the hills to the oilfields, which had truly conquered his heart.
A quarter of a mile away was a sawmill, recently converted from a flour mill in order to produce the timber necessary to erect huts for the oil workers. In one short week the grinding-stones and bolters were hurled away and gave place to saws. Things move quickly in the colonies. A stream which had previously clattered in a mill-like fashion now showed its fury at the screech of the saws, and long after it had leapt the enormous revolving wheel carried the angry foam it threw up. Beside the mill stood a pond and a small dam such as all mills have. A farmer's cottage was nearby. An invitingly green vegetable garden and a peach orchard on whose trees were fruit as big as fists stretched behind it.
We stepped into the cottage to see if any oil workers were drinking mead there. It was their favourite meeting place. The farmer's wife distilled the liquor from honey collected by her husband from the neighbouring trees, which were full of wild bees. These multiply incredibly in a country where flowers are in blossom the year round for the diligent winged workers. Though we found no prospectors we stayed to quench our own thirst. The liquor is quite different from Polish mead, being white in colour, light, and no stronger than beer. They produce it quite differently too, adding hops, diluting it page 215 with water, and boiling it rather as if it were porter. As we drank we chatted with our host about the latest news of the oil venture.
My companion rose after a while to wash his hands in a small well fed by a spring which spouted almost beneath the cottage. The spring water, which the farmer's wife used in her vegetable garden, flowed through a little channel to a miniature pool some three paces across and a few feet deep, lined with the staves of old barrels. Accustomed to the colonial way of life, my friend went to the pool to wash away the dust of our march. There was no need for a basin in such a secluded spot.
He knelt over the well and plunged his hands into the water. But he did not wash them. Instead he simply gazed wonderingly at the water's surface. He scooped up a handful of water, sniffed at it, tasted a drop. He scooped up another handful or two. The farmer and I both thought his behaviour more than a little odd.
When he returned to the table he calmly asked our host how much he had paid for the farm.
‘I paid one pound an acre, and I have forty acres. So the land itself cost me forty pounds. Clearing some ten acres cost me another forty, and then there was the rebuilding of the house after the Maoris burnt it down. All in all, I've sunk a good two hundred pounds in the damned place, and it wouldn't even support us if it weren't for my wife's honey trade. If that peters out we'll have to shift elsewhere.’
‘Would you sell the farm for two hundred pounds?’
The farmer was a canny Scot. The value of his property, worthless a moment ago, immediately increased when someone offered a fair price for it.
‘Perhaps I'd sell,’ he answered, ‘if someone were to offer me a decent price. But I wouldn't sell my only property for a mere two hundred pounds.’
‘But you've just said that you will be forced to leave if customers no longer come for your mead.’
‘They still come for it.’
‘Who comes to drink here?’
‘Sawyers and miners, mostly. Even townsfolk occasionally.’
‘If I recommend the Company's innkeeper to stock not just beer and brandy but mead, too, will that ruin you?’
‘No sir. They won't find such mead as my dear wife prepares anywhere else.’ He stroked the plump chin of his good lady. ‘They know that, and they'll always come to me.’
‘If I got the Company to let you open a canteen on their land, next page 216 to our present canteen, would you move from your lonely farm to a place bustling with life?’
The Scotsman was visibly upset by this proposition. He felt that the Company's agent must have a reason for making him such an advantageous offer. It could not be without good cause that Mr Schaeffer was prepared to pay such a high price for the land, and to offer all these privileges in addition. What was it? He might have accepted the deal, but a growing suspicion whispered to him that his farm must contain a hidden treasure.
‘I don't know that I want to move from here,’ he said after a while. ‘It's close to the bush and the bees. From there I would have at least half an hour's walk … you know how it is. Every day I would have to come here to gather honey. Who would pay me for my extra work?’
‘I'm tired of your shilly-shallying!’ interrupted the impatient speculator. ‘If you want to sell this barren land and your rickety hut, in which you go to sleep each evening not knowing whether the Maoris will burn you up during the night, you can do it now. I offer you more money than you can ever have expected, a site for a new tavern, safety, and company. Answer me now: will you sell, or won't you?’
The hard-pressed Scot had to make up his mind. ‘I'd sell for two hundred and fifty pounds.’
‘My price is two hundred pounds and not a penny more. You set your own value on the place.’
‘I'll have to ask the wife.’
They went into a corner to discuss their answer. Though they spoke in whispers we could hear much of the conversation.
‘Yesterday you would have taken a hundred pounds for the lot!’ the wife expostulated.
‘Can't you see that the man is dying to buy the place?’ asked her anxious husband.
‘But I'm not dying to keep it. I want to live with other people.’
‘But why should he be so keen? There's something fishy about it. If the place is worth two hundred pounds to someone else, it may be worth more than that to us.’
They silently pondered the difficult question.
‘Why did he look in the water?’ asked the good wife.
‘Perhaps he saw gold in it.’
‘Don't be stupid. You've looked for gold there and not a trace did you find. You're an old miner and you've told me time and time again that where the hills are clay, or where there's coal or iron ore about, there's never any gold.’page 217
‘Then what did he see there?’
His wife put her lips to his ear and whispered even lower. At first his eyes bulged in astonishment; then he muttered with a beaming smile: ‘Women are so much sharper than we are. A man is helpless without a partner in a skirt.’
The conference came to an end. The Scotsman returned to us and said, a little shamefacedly, ‘If you insist on buying my property, I'll let you have it for two hundred pounds.’
Charles immediately produced a notebook, tore a leaf from it, and scribbled out a rough contract, according to which the First Taranaki Oil Company purchased from a certain Mr N. his land, water, buildings, and all the appurtenances of the farm called ‘Starvegut’, for which the said Company promised to pay a balance of one hundred and fifty pounds—fifty pounds being paid in advance now—on the day on which the property was received. The said fifty pounds, from the private purse of Second Lieutenant Charles von Schaeffer, secured a quarter of the property including all the deposits found on or under its surface. If the Company did not approve these conditions, or would not recognize the contract as valid, Second Lieutenant Charles von Schaeffer would be obliged to pay the remaining one hundred and fifty pounds from his own funds. Should he not fulfil his obligations, or should he delay payment beyond the period specified in the terms of the contract, the farm and the advance payment would remain the property of the original owner.
The Scot and the second lieutenant each signed the contract. The advance payment passed from Charles's hands into the plump ones of the good lady who, judging by the eagerness with which she accepted it, was the cashier of the mead parlour. I acted as one witness, a worker from the sawmill as the other.
‘Come into the town this evening and we'll confirm the contract before a solicitor,’ said Charles on parting.
We closed the door behind us and set off. I could not fathom this mysterious business and walked on keeping my face carefully expressionless. At last I could bear it no longer. ‘For pity's sake, why did you buy that wretched place?’
Charles took me to the tiny pond and showed me a thin film of oil which covered the water's surface.
‘Bend down and smell that,’ he said curtly.
I did as he told me and clearly smelt oil.
‘Why, that's an oil spring!’ I cried out.
‘Precisely. A real spring. One doesn't have to drill for oil here. page 218 It comes to the surface of its own accord as it does in America. Wherever you dig a well in this area you'll have oil ad libitum just by drawing or pumping it, whichever you prefer. Why spend money on drills when that well is practically ready for production?’
He almost ran to town with the glad tidings. All the way he repeatedly assured me how happy he was. The farm, he declared, was the hiding place of millions of pounds.
‘I'll leave the militia!’ he exclaimed. ‘I'm an officer: I can resign my commission. I'll make oil my sole business. How happy Arabella will be—and how proud her father will be too—when I tell them of my discovery!’
‘Don't you mean Jenny?’
‘Do you really think that that old soak Williams would be a proper partner for me to take into a business like this? One needs a great deal of money for an undertaking of this magnitude … a great deal of money. He would grudge such an outlay. Mr Wittmore will certainly let me have it. I deliberately made sure that a quarter of the farm belongs to me. According to the Company's statutes, a lucky prospector is entitled to do that provided he can contribute a quarter of the investment needed for production. Mr Wittmore will cover that, and I will cede half my share to him. Our new venture will be carried out under entirely new conditions. Until now I have been acting chiefly as a broker. I found new shareholders and sold them claims belonging to other people, for which I received a commission. But now I've discovered a real oil spring. I want the profit of my discovery to be mine. My friends will capitalize me to begin with.’
‘Do you number Mr Wittmore among your friends?’
‘Of course. He and his family have been very interested in me since Major Tempski told them of my lineage and my prospects.’
I changed the subject and asked him about Jenny.
‘Won't you drop in at the camp to see your fiancée?’
Charles suddenly lost countenance. ‘I'll see her tomorrow,’ he stammered ‘… sometime …. You see, business can't be postponed. As the proverb says “Business before pleasure”.’
‘Isn't seeing the girl who has been crippled in saving your life your first concern?’
He answered with another question. ‘Do you think she'll always be a cripple?’
‘They've probably amputated her leg by now.’page 219
Charles said nothing to that. We reached the outskirts of the town. Several people came to meet us.
‘Welcome to the hero!’ exclaimed Mr Wittmore. He was surrounded by handsome daughters among whom Miss Arabella excelled in beauty as a garden rose over its wild sister. ‘We've heard about your adventures. Indeed, they make more exciting reading than any romance….’
‘You've been reading about them?’
‘Yes, indeed. Yesterday's Taranaki Herald described your capture and the devotion of your friend and the Maori girl. Oh, that reminds me! She's safely here. A Quaker woman is looking after her. The bullet has been extracted from her leg. The surgeons say she should recover quite quickly, but she will be lame all her life.’
‘So there was no need for an amputation?’ I asked in relief.
‘No need at all—the bone was not broken. And you, sir, must be the Pylades who rescued our Orestes.’
‘I had some part in the adventure.’
‘Bella! Kitty! Lavinia!—here's our lieutenant's saviour!’
Three deep bows followed this introduction. They were acknowledged by two gracious nods and charming smiles, and one tender look of gratitude, accompanied by a breathtaking blush.
‘This young girl really loves him,’ I thought.
The following day Charles was much in demand among all his friends and acquaintances, both to tell them how he had escaped the jaws of the Maori monsters and to organize a new oil venture. The ‘Americans’ who made up the sniffing committee visited the farm and prepared a report in which they unanimously agreed that the oilfield should produce a million barrels without the least difficulty. Even the Herald's account of the campaign dwindled, and the full report of the committee's verdict occupied four columns of its front page. Moreover, the report added a detailed description of the geological layout of the farm, of its previous owner, of the famous discoverer of its natural riches, and so forth. The other local paper printed the history of the area since the time of the European conquest. Apparently it had been a sacred grove in the pre-European era. The Maoris must have guessed instinctively that here was priceless land.
Two weeks or so after leaving Charles at the side of the beautiful Arabella, I was walking past the office of the Oil Company. I dropped in, hoping to find the German at home. There he was indeed, in person, busy planning extensive work in his new ‘oilfield’, and launching very real shares based on its hypothetical production. I learnt page 220 that during the last fortnight the farm had been divided into twenty lots, on which twenty new wells were being excavated at that very moment. No oil, it appeared, had yet materialized, but in one well there were frequent deposits smelling of crude oil. These signs had persuaded many people to get rid of their shares in the old site behind the camp, which was already producing oil even though in negligible quantities, and invest in the new field where they hoped to find flowing rivers of the blessed fluid. Since oil speculators do not believe in the proverb that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, it did not surprise me to learn that shares in the Starvegut Farm enterprise were passing from hand to hand at fabulous prices. Messrs Wittmore and Schaeffer, joint owners of one quarter of the new field, were doing extremely well for themselves by selling their rights to newcomers.
One evening, a few days after my visit to his office, Charles came to see me and to tell me about his various speculations. He talked for a long time. He told me that he had sold several shares at exorbitant prices and had been able to buy others very cheaply. He added that he intended to leave for Australia. Finally he asked me to go with him to the Williamses or rather to a nearby tavern where I was to stay during his visit. He wanted to talk to the wounded girl and then to pass on their conversation to me.
Charles entered the Quaker woman's house and I went to wait for him in the tavern across the road. As I reached for the door handle I felt a heavy tap on my shoulder. Darkness obscured the features of the man who greeted me in this familiar fashion. It was only when I opened the door and allowed a bright stream of light to flood the dirty swollen face that I remembered I had seen, somewhere, those black sidewhiskers, that upturned nose, those dark blue eyes. It was the Irish sawyer we had met near Auckland, who treated us to dinner, and to whom I afterwards sent a bottle of laudanum—the man whose friendship I had won through having read about his supposed relative in Australia.
‘I am pleased to see you, sir!’ shouted the worthy son of Erin (though he did not greet me until he had called loudly for two glasses of the best brandy). ‘It's long that I've looked for you both, sir, and at last I've found one of you. I recognized you through the window of the pub when you walked by. But before I had time to pay for my drink, your friend had gone into that house up there. I hear you've made your way well in the world—and quickly too.’
‘My companion has done pretty well for himself. As for me, I work for my living in the commissariat.’page 221
‘How much do they pay you there?’
‘A pound a day.’
The Irishman whistled in amazement. ‘Well, your pay is twice as large as mine. And to think that I'm top-sawyer in the mill! Fancy a scribbler—doing nothing but sit around all day—earning more than an honest working man!’
‘Where are you working?’
‘In the Oil Company's sawmill.’
‘How long have you been there?’
‘Two weeks. Since I came here from Auckland.’
‘Why have you come here?’
‘Some time after we met, a party of the Waikatos made a swoop on our settlement. They hoodwinked the troops who had been sent to defend us—they made a detour round their pickets, attacked the settlement without any warning, and burnt the whole lot. There was nothing left. They even cut loose the logs which were floating by the landing stage and sent them out to sea. The manager was in Auckland at the time and I went there with the news. That's when I heard about the oil being discovered here. I knew they'd need workers, because the war means that the young men of the neighbourhood have been conscripted. I'm too old for that but I'm good for work still. I thought I would come here. A ship was on its way, I boarded it, and here I am. The day after I arrived, I had this job.’
‘How did you hear about us?’
‘From the man who sold you the farm. He showed me a copy of the contract. And because your Dutch names sound queer, I guessed it must have been you who had bought it.’
‘Why mix me up in the business? I have so little money that even if I wished to I couldn't afford to take part in the speculation. I'm a poor man.’
‘Then it was your friend who bought the farm and sold at a profit?’
‘He and his partners.’
‘Whatever did he find there to make it worth his while? What makes everyone so interested in the place?’
‘They seem to think there's oil there.’
The Irishman gazed at me mockingly. Then he mumbled, ‘Oil! So the woman was right. Women always know everything. A wife like that would be a real treasure.’
‘It won't be odd if they do find oil there. They're already producing it at the other end of the town. In fact, they're sure to find it—there are promising signs.’
‘Excellent signs, to be sure. Ha! Ha! Of course they found promising page 222 signs.’ He lowered his voice so that only I could hear, ‘I left them there myself.’
Before I could ask what he meant by this statement he seized my hand and drew me into the parlour, a room reserved for those who do not wish to get inebriated à l'anglaise (that is, quickly, while standing at the bar), but slowly, while having a chat.
A fire smouldered in the huge fireplace. (In accordance with local custom, it was kept alight even during the summer. Its purpose was not to provide warmth, for during three hundred and fifty days in the year there is no need for artificial heat—and in any case such fireplaces are not designed to give off heat—but to make the place comfortable. Everyone knows that a bright, lively, crackling fire brings happiness to a house and that the assembled company likes to gather round it.)
The room was dimly lit. The old clock hanging on the wall made a weighty contribution to our conversation with its monotonous tick tock. In the presence of the fire and the clock, neither of which would betray him, my Irish acquaintance got down to business, seated me close to the fire, and himself stood in the shadows, which disguised his clumsy figure and the equally clumsy furnishings of the room. The curious fellow took on a still more curious aspect in the reflection of the dying red flames, by whose capricious flickering our shadows danced upon the walls.
‘Is he really making money out of this business?’ asked the Irishman with an unnatural simplicity and directness.
‘He expects to make a considerable sum.’
‘From producing oil or from selling his shares?’
‘Both, I expect. He buys and sells all the time. Probably his main profit comes from speculating in shares.’
The Irishman thought for a moment, gazing into the fire and chewing a quid of tobacco. Then he pointed to the fire. ‘See that glow?’
‘Is it hot?’
‘Of course it is.’
‘I could extinguish it with a bucket of water.’
‘I could extinguish this oil fever as easily. One word would be enough.’
‘What gives you the power to do that?’
‘The simple fact that it was I who poured the oil into the well an hour before you arrived. It happened just after I started my new page 223 work in the sawmill. The overseer says, “Pat, go to town and buy a gallon of oil so we'll have enough light on night shift.” And I say, “All right, but give me a shilling for my trouble.” So he says, “Here's a shilling to get yourself a drink, and money for the oil. Take this bottle, and be careful not to break it.” And I say, “D'you think I'm a child?”, and off I go. I bought three and a half pints—half a shilling wasn't enough for a decent drink so I took some of the money meant for the oil. On my way back I felt thirsty so I stopped at the spring. I put the bottle on a stone and bent down. And devil take it—I knocked the bottle over. It rolled from stone to stone, and then it broke … and all the oil went into the spring and from there to the well in the garden.’
I clutched my head at this tale. ‘So your mishap was responsible for the news of this fantastic wealth in oil?’
That's not the end of the story. As soon as I heard about your call on the farmer and about the contract I got wind of a good profit. I began to keep an eye on the spring like a real watch-dog. I gave up work and slept there, even, so I could see all the comings and goings. The German came the next day with I don't know how many speculators from the town. They all smelt oil in the well. The following day he came back alone and was very worried because the smell had vanished. He started to cross-examine the farmer. He must have realized that the farmer and his wife had played a trick on him. But he was ashamed to admit that he had been tricked or else the business promised too much profit for him to back out. An overseer and a big crowd of workers came next. They divided the ground into sections and began digging and boarding several wells at once. Each time I went into town all the talk was of the oil fever. The overseer always produced samples of earth well soaked in oil.’
‘So there was oil after all?’
‘Indeed there wasn't. The overseer was given a fresh bottle of crude oil each night. He poured it into the spring and on to the earth dug from the well. I saw him at it. And who do you think brought him the oil—gallons of it, all the way from town?’
‘Was it Mr Schaeffer?’
‘You've hit the nail on the head. I can see you are no fool. What do you say to that? Couldn't we make good money out of it?’
‘I don't know what to say …. I think we'll have to warn everyone.’
‘Don't be stupid! Warn everyone! Who, for instance? We must make sure that such good business—as clear as day what's more—doesn't slip through our fingers. Thanks to the speculators, that wretched page 224 farm is worth thousands of pounds already, and they're still at it. And all the selling and buying is done through the German. As broker he collects commission on every deal. From now on we'll have a cut in it too. We'll make a good thing out of this!’
At the thought of his prospect his eyes glowed with a brighter light than the flames in the grate gave out, and he hummed a well-known English ditty, ‘The bad old days will not return’.
‘Why have you told me your story?’ I asked.
‘The trouble is that this is too big for me. In a case like this, you have to argue it out, be really sharp, write down an agreement. I understand all the local dodges but I'm not too good at writing. Honestly, even two people will do well out of this lot. You can help me by convincing the German that he should work out a plan for his friends to pass their claims in the false field to other people. He'll have to share the profit with us. But don't trust a verbal agreement. Make sure everything is in writing. You'll have to tell him he'll go to gaol if he doesn't play fair. He'll have one quarter of the profit, another quarter goes to you, and I shall have the rest. Even if he warned half the present shareholders to sell in time, we three would still make a packet out of it.’
‘Not so fast! Don't count your chickens before they're hatched. You're proposing something criminal. We can't possibly profit by it, and we must warn everyone else what the real value of the spring is.’
The Irishman gave me a startled look which rapidly turned to one of hatred. I thought I saw his hand move stealthily towards a pocket of the patched coat which clothed his heavy body. I seized his hand and drew my own revolver from my hip pocket.
‘None of that!’ I shouted. ‘Don't play with toys you're not used to. What will you gain by killing me? You'll have to clear out to escape the gallows. You certainly won't make any money.’
‘But I don't mean you any harm,’ whined Patrick, like a pickpocket caught in the act.
‘Allow me to take whatever it is you have hidden in your pocket and throw it out of the window. I know you have a revolver in there, and that you want to shoot me with it through your pocket. I know your pretty ways.’
He was persuaded by the steady barrel of my gun, which gleamed blue and violet in the firelight, and handed over his own weapon.
‘Now we can talk seriously,’ I continued. ‘I'm telling you that your plans will come to nothing. I'm pretty sure, however, that Mr Schaeffer's conscience is not as sensitive as mine, so I'm going straight page 225 to the offices of the local newspapers and I'm going to ask the editors to publish a full account of this affair tomorrow, so that the public—the gullible public with their bottomless pockets—will know the truth of it.’
With this, I attempted to leave the room. But I bumped into Charles in the doorway. Disregarding my haste he grasped my arm and cried ‘I'm free!’
‘Free of what?’
‘I've spoken to Jenny. I've explained my short-lived infatuation, my position, my prospects, my need to leave the colony.’
‘Did you torment a sick girl by reminding her of your betrayal and your intention of deserting her?’
‘I didn't torment her. She understood—without any pressure from me at all—that I couldn't marry a cripple. She also understood why I want to go overseas.’
‘Where are you off to?’
‘I'll go to Melbourne. Mr Wittmore has associates there and he's asked me to be agent for the Company. The First Taranaki Oil Company promises such a rich crop that I'm off to find more clients.’
‘Who will look after the Company's affairs here?’
‘Mr Wittmore, of course.’
‘Is Arabella going with you? Did you tell Jenny that you were abandoning her for another woman?’
‘Miss Arabella isn't going with me. I'm not her brother, nor am I her husband. Furthermore, I don't intend to marry her, and I'm not abandoning anyone for her sake.’
I wanted to see his face and to judge whether he was speaking the truth, but it was too dark. ‘I thought…’ I said.
‘You thought wrong. I don't deny I have been honoured with Miss Arabella's friendship. I even believe,’ he added, his voice betraying his vanity, ‘that perhaps she would not refuse me her hand should I ask for it. Because of what has been between me and the Maori girl I can't and won't ask for it, particularly as Jenny has set me free on condition that I leave New Plymouth. It's quite incredible how jealous she is. She'll quickly forget all about me, but she won't allow me to think of Arabella.’
‘Nevertheless, she has set you free.’
‘Yes, she has. She says herself that she doesn't think a union between us would be a success. Besides, in the present state of her health she can refuse me nothing. You wouldn't credit how she has changed. She's very meek now. The knowledge that she will be lame page 226 for the rest of her days has quite broken her intrepid spirit and the strength of her half-savage will.’
‘You've taken advantage of her weakness. That's not the behaviour of an upright man.’
‘Look carefully at the whole affair, and you'll have to admit that her selfish ambitions are no less cruel. You know her—well …. Remember how she threw herself at anyone whom she and her father thought would make a suitable match for her. My poverty led me to associate with them, and even let me contemplate the thought of marrying her. Once, as she was embracing me, she asked me about you, and the devil counselled me to mislead her—beauty and passion and all. I told her that you have avoided her on purpose and always would. When she cried, I consoled her. Then, somehow, through a careless slip of the tongue, I admitted precisely the same sentiment towards her which you had only pretended. I said I really loved her. You wouldn't believe how quickly her tears dried. She gradually grew tender towards me, and I delighted in her beauty—and she made no effort to defend it. Her passionate nature knew no restraint. How could I refuse someone who leapt into my arms of her own free will?’
‘You plead your case very well. And your timing is excellent too. You did well to remind her, when her very life is in danger, that her love was pushed upon you against your better judgment. But if she has really set you free, and her father stands by her, I can't protest.’
‘Go and see her. Speak to her. Speak to her father. If I'm lying you can punish me as much as you want.’
‘I'll go at once,’ I exclaimed, forgetting about the oil, the Irishman, and the warning I had intended to communicate to the editors, and rushed off headlong to the house across the road.
Mr Charles Schaeffer and the Irishman remained in the shadowy parlour where only the flickering flames and the old clock witnessed their conversation.