Grif: A Story of Colonial Life
Chapter XII. The Welshman Reads His Last Chapter in the Old Welsh Bible
Chapter XII. The Welshman Reads His Last Chapter in the Old Welsh Bible.
In a small blind gully, rejoicing in the name of Breakneck, to which there had once been a slight rush, but which was now almost deserted, there still remained a solitary tent. It attracted no particular attention. It was no unusual thing for diggers to put up their tents in out-of-the-way places, some distance from the claims they were working; and no comment was caused by the circumstance that but very lately this tent had been sold for a trifle to new comers. Breakneck Gully had been so named because, to get to it, one had to descend a range of precipitous hills, with here and there dense clumps of bush and timber, leading into treacherous hollows. The gully was about four miles from the main rush, and had the advantage of being very secluded. When it was first discovered, great hopes were entertained that some rich patches of gold would be found there; but, although the ground had been pretty well turned over, none of the claims yielded more than tucker, and it was soon deserted for more auriferous localities.
One evening, a short time after the Welsher's claim had been worked out, four men were busy within this solitary tent. They might have been ordinary diggers, preparing for supper and their night's rest. They were dressed in the regular digger's costume, and tub, cradle, and tin-dishes, huddled into a corner, would page 158 have been considered sufficiently indicative of the nature of their pursuits. Yet there was about them a manner which did not favor the hypothesis of their being honest workers of the soil. They had an evil look upon their faces: they moved about the tent stealthily and suspiciously; and there was a somewhat too ostentatious display of firearms. Indeed, they were none other than Jim Pizey and his gang.
“Keep a good look out, Ralph,” said Jim Pizey to one who appeared to be stationed as a sentinel near the door. “Let us know if you hear any one coming.”
“All right,” was the reply.
“How much longer are we going to hang about here?” asked Ned Rutt. “I'm tired of waiting. It's my opinion we're only wasting our time.”
“I don't know,” said Jim Pizey. “It'll be the first time the Oysterman ever failed, if he fails now. He seems pretty confident. But I wish he would finish his job. We shall have to be away from here, anyhow, in a couple of days.”
“Isn't Nuttall to have the money in his place by Christmas?”
“Yes; we shall have lots of time to get to the Station. We've got to hang on there a bit, you know. We've had cursed bad luck as yet; but we'll make up for it. I'd like to have Dick Handfield with us. He'd save us a lot of trouble, and it would prevent his peaching afterwards.”
“He knew about the plant in Melbourne, didn't her?”
“Yes, but he's escaped us somehow. I wish we had page 159 cut the skunk's damned throat for him. Directly the affair is blown, he'll know who did it, and he'll split upon us, to a certainty.”
Here, the man at the door, who had been addressed as Ralph, turned his head, and said, “Hush! some one coming.”
Not a word was spoken in reply, but each man grasped his weapon, and assumed an attitude of watchfulness.
“All right,” presently said the sentinel. “It's the Oysterman.”
And in walked, whistling, Honest Steve!
He nodded to his comrades, and, seating himself upon a stretcher, took out his pipe. Having slowly filled his pipe, and lighted it, he said,
“Well, Jim, how is it getting on?”
“How do I know?” returned Jim Pizey.” We're waiting for you to tell us that. Here we are, hanging about for you, and, for all I know, wasting our time to no purpose.”
“Strike me cruel!” exclaimed the Oysterman. “Did you ever know the Oysterman bungle a job?”
“No: but you're a precious long time over this one. I'd strangle the pair of them before I'd be done by them.”
“And so I will, before I'm done by them. I don't want you to tell me how to do my work, though.”
“How much longer are we to wait here?”
“Mates and gentlemen,” said the Oysterman, speaking very slowly, “it is my pleasing duty to inform you, as we say in Parliament, and notwithstanding the insinua- page 160 tions thrown out by my honorable friend and mate, Jim Pizey, Esquire, that I think we may look upon the job as pretty well done.”
“Stop your palaver, and tell us all about it,” observed Jim Pizey.
“Well, then, mates and gentlemen,” said the Oysterman——
“We've had enough of that infernal nonsense,” interrupted Jim Pizey, angrily. “Can't you speak straightforward?”
“Strike me patient!” exclaimed the Oysterman. “Let a cove speak according to his education, can't you! I'll tell the story my own way, or I won't tell it at all.”
“Go on then,” growled Pizey.
“Well, then, to commence all over again: Mates and gentlemen, you know that I'm now an honest, hardworking digger, and mates with Dick Handfield and an infernal fool of a Welshman. When I happened promiscuously to drop across the pair of them, says I to myself, Oysterman, here's a little bit of work for you to do, and you've got to go in and do it well. There's that plant of Nuttall's at Highlay Station, says I to myself. What if the old cove should have some place to put his money in that we don't know of? Here's Dick Handfield knows every foot of the house and station. If we can get hint to join us, we can make sure of the tin. We can settle him afterwards, if we like; but have him we must, if we can get hold of him. But, says I to myself, Dick Handfield is an honest young thief. He gave us the slip once before. And, says I to myself, page 161 Dick Handfield'll get a good claim, perhaps, and I can't get no hold of him if he does, unless I come it very artful. So, mates and gentlemen, I laid a plot, invented it every bit myself, and when I tell you all about it, as I'm going to do now, I think you'll say I did come it artful, and no mistake.”
The Oysterman settled himself upon his seat, in an evident state of enjoyment, and resumed:
“The first thing I thought of, mates and gentlemen, when I came across the pair of them, was that Dick Handfield mustn't suspect that he knew me. You know, mates and gentlemen, that I hadn't shaved for ten years, but I sacrificed everything for my artful plot. I shaved my chin as smooth as a bagatelle ball, and took care to keep myself pretty clean. It was such a long time since I saw my own face, that I assure you, mates and gentlemen, I hardly knew it again. But to prevent any chance of discovery, I got some acid, and burned this black mark under my eye. That was rather artful, wasn't it? I And, mates and gentlemen, as it spoils my good looks, I hope you'll take it into consideration when we square up, and make me an allowance for it. Then, says I to myself, what name shall we take, Oysterman? And I hit upon Honest Steve, as one that would exactly suit me. Then I began to look about me; it didn't take me long to strike up an acquaintance with the Welsher. He's a simple kind of fool, and will believe anything. As for Dick Handfield, I knew his weakness. I only had to call him ‘Sir,’ and speak very respectful, and he was all right in a minute. They had just worked out their first claim, which had only kept page 162 them in tucker. I had a claim marked out upon the lead, and I offered to take them in as mates. They jumped at the offer, like a couple of mice jumping into a trap; and after that I got more artful than ever. The long fool of a Welshman, he's a soft sort of cove, and he reads his bible every night before he goes to bed. Says I to myself, I must turn religious, I must. So I buys a Testament, and I makes it dirty and ragged, as if I had used it a good deal, and I writes my name inside the cover. One day, I leaves this Testament lying on the table—quite by accident, mates and gentlemen—and the Welshman, he comes in, and I twigs him take it up and look at my name on the cover. ‘Is this yours, Steve?’ he says. ‘Yes,’ I answers; ‘how stupid of me to leave it out; I've had it for twenty years, and I wouldn't take twenty ounces for it;’ and I knew that I had got him all right. Then I set on to Dick Handfield. I knew how to make him mad. I got him to talk of his being a gentleman, and what a shame it was that such a swell as him should have to work like a common digger. The Welsher, says I, he's used to it, and don't mind it, but you ought to be different. It isn't a very gentlemanly thing, I says to him, for you to have to go mates with an old lag—for the Welshman, you know, mates and gentleman, is a lag—a lifer, too. Then I got him to drink, and set him and the Welshman quarreling and after that, mates and gentlemen, my artful job was pretty well done.”
“What are you going to make of all this?” asked Jim Pizey. “I don't see how this will get Dick Handfield to join us. And we must have him, Oyster- page 163 man, or we shall all swing for it. He's the only one, besides Old Flick, who knows what we're up to.”
“Wait till I've done,” said the Oysterman, “and you'll see quick enough. I've been mates with the Welshman and Dick Handfield now for four weeks, and the claim's washed up. It has turned out pretty well—but not so well as the diggers round about think it has, which makes it all the better for us. They think we've been keeping them in the dark as to what we've got out of the claim. We haven't divided the gold yet: the Welsher's got charge of that. We're going to divide to-morrow. All the diggers know that we're going to divide to-morrow”—and here the Tenderhearted Oysterman laughed and rubbed his knees. “I've took care that they should all know it. That's coming it artful, ain't it?”
“How?” asked Jim Pizey.
“How?” repeated the Oysterman, scornfully, but dropping his voice. “Can't you see through it? I The Welsher and Dick Handfield, they've been quarreling for the last two weeks, as if they'd like to cut each other's throats. I've took care of that. I told Dick Handfield that the Welsher said he was a proud, lazy fool; and I told the Welsher that I heard Dick Handfield swear, if he could get hold of the Welsh Bible, he'd pitch it into the fire. Dick Handfield, he's been drinking like mad; and this afternoon, mates and gentlemen, this afternoon, they had a regular flare-up; if they hadn't been parted, they'd have had a stand-up fight. Dick Handfield, he goes away swearing that he'll be even with the Welsher yet. And page 164 that's the end of my story, mates and gentlemen.”
“But what's to come of all this?”
“Can't you see through it yet? What would you say, if, before to-morrow morning, I was to bring you the gold the Welsher's taking care of? There's nearly a hundred ounces of it. What do you think I've been working for all this time? You be on the watch to-night, and I'll bring you the gold, safe enough. See here, mates and gentlemen”—and he looked about him cautiously, and pulled out a knife—“this is Dick Handfield's knife, this is; I prigged it from him this morning. What if the poor Welsher was to be found to-morrow morning dead in his stretcher? What if Dick Handfield's knife should be found on the ground, under the stretcher, with blood on if? The quarrel between the poor Welsher and Dick Hand-field remembered—the gold that was going to be divided to-morrow morning gone: eh, mates and gentlemen? Do you see now how artful I've been coming it? When Dick Handfield knows that they're after him for murdering his mate—when he knows that his knife is found, covered with blood—he'll be too glad to come with us, so as to get out of the way. Oh, you let the Oysterman alone for doing a job properly! To-morrow night, by this time, we'll be on the road to Highlay Station, and Dick Handfield will be with us.”
“And all this will be done to-night?”
“As sure as thunder!”
“By God! Oysterman,” exclaimed Jim Pizey, “you've got a heart of iron!”page 165
“Strike me merciful!” said the Tenderhearted Oysterman. “Me a heart of iron! I've got a heart as soft as a woman's! If I thought I should hurt the poor cove to-night, I'd go and give myself in charge beforehand. There's Ralph, there, if you called him hard-hearted, you wouldn't be far out. But me!”
“What do you mean?” growled Ralph.
“Mean, you flinty-hearted parent!” said the Tenderhearted Oysterman. “What's the use of your being a father! We've never heard you ask once after your offspring, Grif!”
“How's the young rip getting on?” asked Ralph, surlily.
“Very bad,” replied the Oysterman; “very bad, isn't he, Jim? He's turned honest, and blacks boots in the streets for a tanner a pair. We gave him a turn, Jim and me, but we didn't pay him; I wasn't going to encourage him. He'll come to no good, won't Grif; he's a downright sneak.”
“There, that's enough of him,” growled Ralph; “talk of something else, can't you?”
“Here's an unnatural father for you!” exclaimed the Oysterman, looking round. “Objects to speak about his own offspring! It makes my tender heart bleed to think of his unnaturalness. Give us something to drink; I'm dry with talking. I'll stop for a couple of hours before I go back. Everything 'll be quiet then.”
Brandy was produced, and the gang of ruffians sat together for some time in the dark, talking in whispers over their vile projects.page 166
The Welsher was alone in his tent. He was lying upon his stretcher, thinking over his quarrel with Richard Handfield; thinking how sorry he was that there should have been any quarrel at all, and how he would like to make it up. He could not help reflecting how strange it was that he had never quarreled with Richard until Honest Steve had joined them. He had not been quite imposed upon by Honest Steve: he had all along entertained a doubt of that worthy's genuineness, and all his simple predilections were in favor of Richard Handfield. There were two stretchers in the tent, one belonging to Handfield, the other to himself. Honest Steve had a little tent of his own, close by. The Welsher cast many glances at the unoccupied stretcher, wishing that Handfield would come, so that the difference between them might be healed. The more he thought over the matter, the more he was convinced that an explanation would set it all right. There were many good points about Handfield, which had won upon the simple Welsher; and in his heart he did think that his mate's lot was a hard one. He had seen the picture of Alice, too, which Richard kept about him (for, with all his faults, Richard dearly loved his wife), and her sweet face seemed to elevate his mate in his eyes. And so, as he lay upon his stretcher thinking over these things, the Welsher yearned for Richard's return, that a reconciliation might be effected between them.
Richard Handfield was far from a bad man; but he was a weak man and a coward. He was vacillating, and was easily led for good or evil. Above all, he could not face page 167 misfortune. The change in his circumstances before he married Alice, his bitter disappointment at the conduct her father had pursued towards them, and their subsequent misfortunes and poverty, had completely prostrated him. He really looked upon himself as most harshly treated: in his heart, he did not believe that any other man in the world had as much to bear as himself; and he writhed and fretted at his hard lot. The weak points in his character would scarcely have made their appearance in prosperity; but under the lash of misfortune they thrust themselves out, pricking him sorely, and causing him to appear in a very unaimable light. He was intensely weak, intensely vacillating, intensely selfish; and his utter want of moral courage was bringing him to the brink of a terrible precipice.
It was past nine o'clock in the evening when Richard, who had been drinking at some of the sly grog-shanties, came to the tent. It would have been better for him had he not come home that night. It is awful to think upon what slight threads of chance a man's destiny hangs! He had not intended to sleep that night in the Welsher's tent, but a stray remark had changed his resolution. The quarrel between the two mates had been incidentally mentioned in conversation at the shanty where Richard was drinking, and a digger jokingly observed that he supposed Richard would be afraid to sleep that night in the Welsher's tent. This remark decided him. He was not going to have the charge of cowardice brought against him. It also prevented his drinking to excess, for he determined to go home early.page 168
When he entered, the Welsher sprang from him stretcher, and Richard started back, expecting a blow. He was much astonished when the Welsher, holding out his hand, said—
“Dick, let's shake hands. If you are sorry for the quarrel we have had, so am I. Why should we two fall out?”
Richard put out his hand, but not so readily as the Welsher.
“I'll shake hands with you, Welsher,” he said; “and 'I'm sorry that we quarreled. But you had no right to say of me that I was a proud, lazy fool.”
“I said nothing of the sort,” said the Welsher. “Whatever I've said, I've said to your face. I'm not mean enough to speak against a man when his back's turned. Who told you I said so?”
It flashed across the Welsher's mind, that they had both been deceived by Honest Steve.
“You remember my telling you my story, Dick, when we camped out?” he asked.
“You remember that part about my mother?”
“And the Bible she gave me?”
“All the gold in Victoria could not buy that Bible of me, Dick.”
“I don't think it could, Welsher.”
“And yet I was told that you swore to burn that Bible, when you could lay hands on it.”page 169
“Whoever told you so told a lie. I'm not very sober, but you can believe me.”
“I do. We've both, been put upon by Steve. He told me you swore this, and you may guess my blood was up.”
“I should think so. But why didn't you tell me this before?”
“Because Steve made me promise not to say anything about it. I suppose he made you promise the same. Shake hands again, Dick. When we've squared up, to-morrow morning, we'll break with Steve, and you and I will stick together as mates, if you like. I'll tell him my opinion of him, too.”
So the two mates were friends again; and, softened by the reconciliation, they fell into confidential conversation. The Welsher was even bold enough to speak to Richard about Alice; and Richard, humbled by what had passed, did not resent his mate's remarks.
“When men and women marry,” said the Welsher, “they owe a duty to each other, which I think it is sinful to forget. You have forgotten your duty, Dick. If your wife is anything like the picture you have of her, she wouldn't forget her's, I'll stake my life on it.”
“She is the best woman in the world,” said Richard. “If she had never seen me, it would have been better for her.”
“But she did see you, and she married you, Dick, so it's not very wise to speak like that now. How long is it since you have written to her?”
“It must be five or six weeks,” answered Richard. “There is no excuse for me, I know. But I had not courage.”page 170
“There is no excuse for you,” said the Welsher. “I wish I had the good fortune to possess such a wife; you are not half grateful enough, Dick. Think of her, without a friend in Melbourne, waiting, waiting, waiting! Poor thing! who has she to lean upon but you? Write to her to-morrow. I tell you what we'll do, Dick? When we've divided the gold—there are more than ninety ounces—we'll put our two shares together, and we'll take your wife in mates with us. We'll divide our shares into three, and you shall send her her share with your letter.”
Richard pressed his mate's hand.
“You are a good fellow, Welsher,” he said. “We'll talk over it in the morning.”
“No; we'll settle it now. I've got no one depending upon me. I haven't much use for my share. For the matter of that, you might have the lot. Why not go to Melbourne, and bring her here? While you're away, I can be putting up a tent for you. I'll get a good claim, too, before you return; you see if I don't.”
“She would never be able to rough it, up here.”
“Dick,” said the Welsher. “What do you think she is doing now, in Melbourne? She must be dreadfully unhappy, away from you, although you do not deserve her. Come, now, make up your mind. This may be a turning point for you. We might get a pile claim, you know, and then you'd be all right again.”
“You put new life into me, Welsher. I think I will go to Melbourne, and ask her if she'll come.”
“Bravo, Dick! You shall start the day after to-morrow. She'll come, depend upon it. I'll be your friend, page 171 Dick—your's and her's. You'll see what sort of a tent I'll nave ready for you by the time you come up. That's all settled, then.”
“Yes; and now I'll turn in. I've heard of a good bit of ground, and I want to be up early to have a look at it.”
“All right. I shall turn in, too. Good night, Dick.”
“Good night, old fellow.”
Richard was soon asleep, but the Welsher lay awake for a longer time than usual, reading his mother's Bible. He had a strange sort of feeling about him. His mind was thronged with old associations. He kissed the Bible before he fell asleep; and, as consciousness was fading from him, the last thing he saw, with his inner sense of sight, was the face of his old mother, as he remembered it in his boyish days.
Everything in and around the tent was wrapped in deepest shade. The moon had not yet risen. The stars glimmered dimly in the heavens, and the wind floated by with soft sighs. Scarce the barking of a dog disturbed the stillness. Nothing but the deep breathing of strong men was heard. A solemn hush was over all. Yet there was wakeful life within the tent—wakeful life in the person of the Tenderhearted Oysterman, who, with but little trouble, had succeeded in unfastening the calico door from without. When he was inside, he softly closed the door, and crouched upon the ground, listening to the regular breathing of the sleepers. Satisfied that his entrance had not disturbed them, he took a piece of phosphorus from his pocket, and rubbed it upon the page 172 sleeve of his serge shirt. As he held his arm up to his face, a dim, ghastly glare was reflected in his cruel eyes, and upon his cruel lips. He then took out Richard's clasp-knife, and opened it slowly, so as to avoid the click of the spring. His plans were well matured. In the event of any struggle, and of Richard's awaking, he would call out for assistance, and accuse Richard of the murder. He could easily account for his appearance in the tent, and, for the rest, Richard's knife, and the quarrel between the mates, would be sufficient evidence. He thought over all this as he crouched upon the ground, with the open knife in his hand. He slowly drew the bright blade across the phosphoric glare on his sleeve, and then suddenly rose, and bent over the sleeping form of the Welshman. The doomed man was lying upon his back, and his arm, carelessly thrown over his pillow, rested upon the old Welsh Bible. The coverings on the bed were disarranged, and the Welshman's strong, muscular chest was partially bared. If, at that awful moment, he had awakened, it would not have saved him: for the hand of the murderer was raised, and, with one strong, cruel flash, the knife was buried to the hilt in the heart of the sleeping man! A sudden start—an agonised quiver of every nerve—a choking, gasping sigh and moan—and the murdered man lay still in death. Not more still was his form than was the form of his murderer. Motionless as a statue, the Tenderhearted Oysterman stood, as if petrified. For a brief space only he so stood; for presently his muscles relaxed, and he groped under the dead man's pillow for the gold. He uttered a stifled scream as his hand came in contact with page 173 the dead man's face; but directly afterwards, he cursed himself in silence for his folly. When he had found the gold, he turned his phosphorus-lighted sleeve towards the murdered man. He felt sick and faint, as the ghastly blue glare fell upon the Welshman's bleeding breast, and with a shudder, which he could not repress, the Tenderhearted Oysterman crept stealthily from the tent.
Pale and trembling, he halted for a few moments outside, as if for rest. He could hear nothing but the beating of his heart against his ribs; he could see nothing but the phosphorescent glare upon his arm. As though he had looked into some weirdly-illuminated mirror, in which he saw a fadeless picture of his crime, he hurriedly turned up the sleeve, and so shut out the glare. Then he walked towards Breakneck Gully. The loneliness was awful to him. As he crept slowly along—for he had to thread his way for the first mile between deserved claims, and over white hillocks of pipe-clay—he listened eagerly for the barking of a dog, for any sound that would break the dreadful silence, and divert his thoughts from the deed he had committed. But no sound fell upon his ears; for him the air was full of silent horrors. Strive as he would, he could not rid himself of the fancy that the shadow of the murdered man was gliding after him as he walked along. He dared not look behind him. He almost tumbled into a hole as he quickened his steps, the sooner to reach his comrades' tent; but, recovering himself, he started back with an oath upon his coward lips, for he thought he saw the Welshman's face rise suddenly from the claim. It dis- page 174 appeared as suddenly as his fancy had conjured it up, and he went on his way. As he came to the end of the diggings, a faint light was spreading over the verge of the horizon. The moon was rising. He was thankful for this; for the thought that he should have to walk, surrounded by black night, through the wooded range which led to Breakneck Gully, somewhat daunted him; but he would have the moon now to light him through the bush. He cursed his weakness; he cursed his folly in not having provided himself with brandy to keep up his courage. He needed it; for he could not shake off the idea of the appalling shadow gliding after him. His thoughts travelled back to the tent, and, fascinated by the horror of the last hour, he lived it over again. Once more be enters the tent, vividly recalling each minute circumstance; once more he crouches upon the ground, intent and watchful. He takes the piece of phosphorus from his pocket, and rubs it upon his sleeve—there is a blue glare across his eyes as he thinks this part of the tragedy over again—he opens the knife, softly, cautiously—he bends over the sleeping man, raises his arm and strikes! Horror! what is that? Standing directly in his path, is a tall, dark form, with gaunt arms stretched towards him. He can see its hair stir, he can hear a sobbing wail issue from its mouth. His craven heart leaps with terror; then a sickly smile of relief passes over his face, for he sees that he has been startled by a tree, its branches trembling in a gust of wind which has just swept by. All nature seemed to cry against him for the coward deed he had committed. The moon rose slowly behind a veil of mournful clouds; the stars page 175 paled; the wind gasped and sobbed; and every leaf and branch quivered as he crept along. Once he closed his eyes, as if to shut out the terror which encompassed him; but more thickly thronged his ghastly fancies, making themselves visible. And when he looked before him once more, a shadow seemed to glide swiftly by him, and to hide itself behind a clump of timber at his right. So strong was this fancy upon him, that he took a knife from his pocket, and held it ready to strike. A sigh of relief escaped him when he had left the clump of timber at his back; but still he dared not look behind, for the awful shadow was following on his steps. Louder grew the moaning of the wind; more strongly trembled every leaf and branch; and a flash of pale lightning glancing suddenly upon his sight, almost blinded him. But not so suddenly that he did not see within it a picture of the Welshman lying upon his stretcher, with a stream of blood flowing from his breast. Then the clouds began to weep; thick clots of rain fell, like clots of blood, in his path; and he trod in them, shuddering. He was near the end of his journey now. Within fifty yards of his comrades' tent stood a solitary tree. As he passed it, the heavens opened, and he saw again the vision of the Welshman's bleeding heart, while the now fast-pouring rain seemed to coil a host of bloody symbols round about his feet!