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A Romance of Lake Wakatipu

Chapter IV

page 15

Chapter IV.

Resident Magistrate's and Warden's Courts.

The day at which our narrative has arrived proved what lawyer Campbell called one of his field days. It was the periodical sitting of the Resident Magistrate's and Warden's Courts.

Campbell had got through an extra amount of work, and, whether it was due to the precedents quoted, or the absence of reference-books, the work had been most successful. He was in high glee, and, having ended the labours of the day, adjourned to the Arrow Arms to celebrate the occasion. There Daddy, as he was familiarly named, became the centre of an admiring group, on whose invite he had put more than one fill of whiskey out of sight.

Feeling he had had enough for the occasion, he was making his way out when he went butt up against a man whose identity he did not at first recognise. The collision was so sharp that the opposing bodies rebounded a few feet apart, at which distance a mutual recognition took place.

"Heigh, Daddy! is it thee?" exclaimed Bill Fox; "where away in such a thunderbolt of a hurry? "Why, man, you have knocked seven bells out of me."42

"Bill Fox" rejoined the man of law, "it's you, is it? Man, I thought I had run bolt up against the Arrow Bluff. You're a tough bit of stuff, Bill; but, tell me, what brings you here in such hot haste?"

"Oh, nothing," replied Fox, "only I want to have a word with you."

"A word with me" repeated Duncan, "why, what's up? Has the 'Nancy' been running amuck with the lake scows43, or has she been trying conclusions44 with the Queenstown Jetty?"

page 16

Bill assured him that neither of these mishaps had occurred, but that, on the contrary, the "Nancy" had been conducting herself as a well-behaved fore-and-aft schooner ought to do.

With these assurances, the two, without further parley, edged over to the bar, and, in accordance with ancient custom, smuggled, as Bill himself put it, a drop of the creature under their belts.45

In as few words as possible Bill enlightened the lawyer as to the purport of his mission, and, as it was mutually understood there was a secret to be kept, the pair adjourned further consultations to the domiciliary retreat of the lawyer.

We have said enough to show the mode of life pursued by the latter was not one of strict discipline. Accordingly, no one will be surprised to learn his home was the reverse of orderly. There was an accumulation of small-debt writs and rubbish which would have left the unassisted mind at a loss to determine whether the occupier was a debt-collector or a dustman. Inside the caboose, as the legal gentleman facetiously designated his dwelling, the pair disposed of themselves after the following order:

The lawyer sat on an empty gin-case close up to the rough-boarded table, which, in addition to other purposes, social and domestic, did duty as a writing-desk. Adapting himself to circumstances, Bill occupied the only other seat—viz., the edge of a stretcher—which served as a seat by day and a couch by night.

Like many other institutions sacred to the memory of the goldfields, the stretcher has become well nigh obsolete. It was an elongated camp-stool, made out of plain spars, with a length of canvas hung in the centre, on which the occupant lay down at nights. It was a rough, simple structure, provocative of colds and chills, arising from the fact that it was all but impossible to prevent the bed-clothes slipping over the sides. Still, it was accounted a luxury in its day compared with the doss-down46 the digger in pursuit of his calling was accustomed to.

Bill handed the mysterious document to the lawyer, who, after adjusting his spectacles, set about its careful perusal. This he did with slowness and deliberation, muttering commentaries to himself as he proceeded. Having finished, he refolded page 17the paper with care approximating to fondness, a fact which was not lost upon Bill Fox's close, though silent, observations.

For a few moments the lawyer appeared lost in reflection. Bill's patience at length gave way, and, yielding to the impulse of the moment, he addressed his companion as follows:—

"Well, now, old Calf-skin Dad, has that capacious brainpan of yours swallowed up the contents, or will it require the t'other gentleman with his long robe to gather it all up?"

"Quite unnecessary," replied the lawyer; "the whole thing is there as plain as a sunbeam."

"Well," retorted Bill, "seeing the whole thing's such plain sailing, just you find time to enlighten me a little on the subject."

With the short preliminary cough peculiar to the professional man about to communicate important facts, Campbell began in slow, measured terms, as if still lost in reflection.

"Yes," said he, "its all there, signed, sealed, and delivered, right and tight, no doubt about it."

"But," said Bill, a little nettled, "what is it that's all there right and tight? Come, drop the metaphor and give us the fact."

Thus admonished, the lawyer became less mysterious, and, lifting the document, read from the docket-sheet as follows: "The last will and testament of me, Josiah Begg, of San Francisco, merchant shipper and general importer, made this first day of June, in the year of our Lord 1859."

"Merchant shipper," quoth Bill, catching at that part of the phrase with professional zeal; "I wonder now if this old salt died worth a good shot in the locker."47

"Bill," said the lawyer in a voice of deep solemnity, "that's just what we'll have to ascertain before we can do any good either for ourselves or for others."

The deliberation was carried on much further, during which Bill was made to recite all the particulars connected with the finding of the will.

At mention of the little old man with the deep gash on his forehead the lawyer became doubly solemn and impressive. "Why, Bill Fox," said he, "depend upon it there is a deep mystery connected with this affair—a mystery which may or page 18may not be cleared up until that great day when the sea shall give up its dead."

Not being well versed in Scripture narrative, Bill innocently inquired if the day referred to was close at hand, "For," said he, "there's sure to be a rising of the tide on that occasion, and, as the Nancy's mooring-gear is none of the best, it will have to be looked to."

"Whisht, whisht,"48 said the lawyer impressively, "I am afraid, Bill Fox, you have not studied your Bible as you ought to do, for therein it is written that day shall come as a thief in the night."

From this it will be gathered that lawyer Campbell was a correct type of his countrymen, of whom it is said, "Do not touch his religion or his whiskey."

The deliberation resulted in an arrangement that Campbell should proceed to Dunedin, with a view of ascertaining who and what Josiah Begg, of San Francisco, is or was, so as to determine the net value to be put upon this mysterious find at the Wakatipu.

42 Nautical slang referring to the eight half-hour bells used for each watch.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

43 Wide-beamed sailing dinghies used for transporting cargo.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

44 Engage in a trial of skill with.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

45 To drink alcohol.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

46 To sleep somewhere uncomfortable or unconventional.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

47 Having something useful or valuable left behind.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

48 Scottish equivalent of "Hush, hush."

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]