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A Romance of Lake Wakatipu

Chapter XXII. The Tragedy

page 91

Chapter XXII. The Tragedy.

The Little Old Man disappears—Distinguished Visitors from San Francisco—Tracking the Old Man—Over the Staircase headlong into the Lake—Back to the Golden City—The Arrowtown Lawyer again—Believes in the Bona Fides of the Will; and what was done in Consequence.

The little old man had not been seen for many days; but, as it was no one's special duty to look after him, no one troubled himself about the matter. His nearest neighbours were at work some miles down the gully; and in those days, when men came and went constantly, little was either known or thought of those around.

The first thing that directed special attention to the circumstance was that, on landing one week's supplies, Bill Fox discovered the supply for the previous week had not been taken away. This led Bill to mention the matter at Queenstown, and he was asked to look out, and try if he could ascertain anything about the old man.

Both supplies remaining unappropriated, it was deemed something serious had happened. A search party was organized, and, although found to be in great disorder, the hut was supposed to be just as the old man had left it.

Foul play was now suspected. Two months had elapsed since the old man was seen. It was remembered one or two strangers were in the neighbourhood about the time; but, if every stranger so coming and going was to be held responsible for the old man's fate, the account would become rather a heavy page 92one. The police, of course, took steps in the matter. They succeeded in identifying him with the Gabriel's Gully episode, which had merely the effect of diverting them on to the wrong scent. Imagining that transaction had to do with his disappearance, they directed their attention exclusively to that quarter, and kept holding on to their theory, until the real cause of the mystery had got away safely beyond reach.

The success which attended developments on the Otago goldfields induced more than one San Francisco shipping firm to put on vessels direct for Dunedin. By that means a goodly number of Californians were from time to time imported into New Zealand.

One of these vessels came to hand in the winter of 1864. It was well freighted with passengers, chiefly of the digging class. With two of its passengers we are especially interested. The one was an elderly man, of Hebrew extraction; the other being a younger personage, whose nationality it would be difficult to determine. Both men were addicted to gambling, more especially the old Jew. The way he tipped up the dice and dealt out the cards showed him to be a practised hand in all the arts of the spieler.209 Their speculations, or, rather, peculations,210 being trifling, and their conduct otherwise up to the average, they attracted no great amount of notice on shipboard.

Arriving in Dunedin, they parted company. The younger of the two shouldered his swag, and made off for the goldfields. The elder, in furtherance of the character he had assumed as a general dealer, purchased a small business in the Arcade, then a great resort for Jew pedlars.

Three or four months elapsed, when the digger again turned up in Dunedin and rejoined his companion in the Arcade, and a close confab211 took place in a back room of the premises. Con, to which name the younger man answered, was chief spokesman on the occasion.

"Iak," said he—for the old Jew was no other than the keeper of the San Francisco gambling saloon—"I have had the devil's own time of it. I tracked the old man from Tuapeka right round the country to Invercargill, and from thence to the Nevis. He had got into some kind of a mess about leading off page 93a duffer rush, and the boys had the rope about his neck ready to hoist him up, and, if they had only had five minutes longer, the job would have been done. Those confounded bobbies212—worse luck to them—came up at the moment and got him away. Frightened to death lest he should again fall into the hands of some of the Tuapeka lot, he buried himself away in one of the most God-forgotten holes in the country. Still, it was a good place for giving him the tip-over. I spent one night with him in his hut. The old man was so suspicious, he watched me the whole time. At daybreak next morning he was only too glad to get shut of me, and with a little persuasion I got him to accompany me to the Wakatipu track. Watching my opportunity, before he knew where he was I knocked him on the head, and sent him over the Staircase headlong into the lake."

"And about the will," inquired Iak; "did you get hold of it?"

"Devil a will could I find," replied Con. "I returned again to the hut and looked everywhere, but not a scrap of paper could I find."

"Then, in that case," mused Iak, "he must have had it about him, and it's gone down with him to the bottom."

"I reckon so," was Con's retort. "At all events, I ransacked everywhere, but there was nothing of the kind found."

"Any fear of the body being found?" asked the Jew.

"Once at the bottom of Lake Wakatipu," answered his companion, "and nothing ever comes up again to the surface."

"Then, in that case," said the Hebrew, rubbing his hands gleefully, "Sammy Perkins, you have had a good few tips over that same will, but now you have got the tip that settles your hash."213

"Settles it," replied Con, "now, henceforward, and for evermore."

A few days afterwards the premises in the Arcade had changed hands, and their late proprietor and his companion were en route for San Francisco.

Arriving there, they reported the success which had attended their mission to New Zealand. They had no difficulty in getting their principals to adopt the view as to the will being effectually disposed of along with the body of Sam Perkins.

page 94

Their joy was therefore great, and their hopes seemed now on the eve of being fulfilled.

All difficulties were seemingly out of the way, and they looked confidently forward to the final decision of the Courts of Appeal as to the validity of the alleged marriage. That point disposed of, Jean Stewart would become a millionaire, the house-steward would become Jean Stewart's husband, and Iak and his friend Con would be enriched, in recognition of the services they had rendered. The proverbial slip between the cup and the lip was not, however, taken into consideration.

Our old friend the Arrowtown lawyer once more comes to the fore.

Since last heard of he had not been idle. He had opened communications with a firm of solicitors in San Francisco, and, by the time the case for Miss Stewart came on before the Courts of Appeal, they were in a position to put in an appearance.

The will in favour of the natural daughter Mary, supported by affidavits made in New Zealand, England, and Scotland, was produced in support of a motion made by their barrister to stay proceedings.

Miss Stewart's lawyers did not believe in this new development of the case. They thought and said it was merely a trick on the part of the two brothers to delay proceedings and force a compromise. Miss Stewart herself, however, thought otherwise. She quite believed in the bona fides of the will, so also did the house-steward and his late partner in the gambling saloon, as also that gentleman's confrère Con. These four worthies214 therefore took counsel together, and the understanding they came to was that the sooner they took leg-bail215 the better.

Where Miss Stewart went was never known. An assignment to her bequest under the will was subsequently produced and sworn to, so that it may be inferred she did not leave San Francisco empty-handed. The others likewise disappeared from view, leaving no trace behind. The will was eventually ruled a valid document, in virtue of which the natural daughter was placed in possession of the wealth left by her deceased father; and so ended the last act in what is still remembered as the Lake Wakatipu Tragedy.

209 A gambler or swindler.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

210 To take something dishonestly, through theft or embezzlement.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

211 An informal private discussion.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

212 Police officers.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

213 A messy assortment of incongruous things.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

214 Significant or notable people within a certain sphere.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

215 Escape.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]