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The Land of The Lost

Chapter XIII

page 100

Chapter XIII

The spot where the annual race-meeting of the district was held lay about fifteen miles from the "Scarlet Man" and half that distance from the chief port on the coast.

With the exception of a single house of accommodation, there was no settlement in the vicinity, though a number of farms were scattered about the surrounding district.

In ordinary circumstances a large gathering of both sexes might be expected to fill the natural amphitheatre in which the races were held, but on this occasion the threatening aspect of the weather had considerably lessened the number of male attendants, and saving a few enthusiasts who had probably ridden a long distance, and were in consequence not inclined to be balked of their pleasure, the ladies were conspicuous by their absence.

It would have been difficult for a casual visitor, whose soul was not concerned with the respective merits of Briseis (colloquially "Breezes") and the Digger, or any other of the favourites whose names were in the mouths of all, to conceive that a scene of such squalor and apparent misery represented a high percentage of individual enjoyment; yet cheerful faces and sounds of laughter prevailed. The allusions to the weather were frequent, but they consisted mainly of such good-page 101natured badinage as "Call this a climate? Why, it would knock the old country out in one round!" "Breezes? Yes, but can the beggar swim? I'll lay five to four against her, anyway."

"I'll tell you what, the climate's bankrupt, like everyone else. There goes Roller! What's this they're saying about Miss Hamilton going off with a gumdigger?"

"What nonsense!" said another speaker. "'They Say' was a liar from his birth up."

"Never smoke without fire," said the first speaker. "Look here! Who wants to back Roller's brute? I'll lay the Digger."

He raised his voice intentionally, and Roller, who was standing a short distance away, overheard him and came across.

"How much will you lay, Johnson?" he asked.

"Thirty to ten," said Johnson.

"I'll take you," said Roller. "Make it sixty."

"Thirty to twelve now," said the other.

"I'll take that too," said Roller, after a pause. "What an awful day!" he added, after he had booked the wager. "The course will be knee-deep in mud before we're finished."

"The course?" said Johnson. "Where the dickens is the course? Why the mischief does the committee let the gorse grow up like this? They ought to put up a notice board, "First to the right, second to the left," just to give people an idea."

"I suppose the jockeys know where it is," said Roller. "It is to be hoped so, at any rate."

"Here, James," called out Johnson to a person pushing hurriedly through the throng, "you're a committeeman—where's the course?"

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"Blowed if I know," said James. "I'm weigher in. You'd better ask Dixon."

"Course?" said Dixon on being appealed to. "Why, you're standing on it; and I wish you chappies would keep over the other side. We had it all flagged yesterday, but the wind has blown most of them over. I've got a man tying calico on the bushes at the difficult places."

"Oh, so long as it isn't mislaid, you know," said Johnson drily.

Just then a burly native in a red jersey, who had stood an interested witness of the booking of the wagers between Roller and Johnson, approached the latter and looked him carefully over with his brown eyes, A crowd of native women and men followed him and formed quite a large group on the track.

"How much you lay Wikitoria?" the native asked.

"Victoria?" said Johnson. "Not bookmaker me, you know. No money about him."

"You tink Wikitoria good fella? She very good horse, I tink?"

"Very fair, I should say, by her breeding," Johnson replied.

"She bloody horse, I suppose so?"

Johnson turned the question over with his tongue in his cheek for some time before its exact significance occurred to him. "Blood horse? Oh yes; she's a thoroughbred all right."

"I back him," said the native. "How much you lay?"

Johnson signalled to a bookmaker on the other side of the track. "Here, Davis," he said, "they want to back Victoria. What's the odds?"

"Four to one" said Davis, turning to the natives. "How much?"

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"Kapai, five to one," said the native. "Wikitoria no good, p'raps so. You lay five to one?"

"Give us hold, then. Five to one Wikitoria! Five to one Wikitoria! I'll lay Wikitoria!"

The challenge drew the Maoris, who flocked in from all sides, struggling with one another to secure the bookmaker's tickets in exchange for their money. So persistent were they that after a while Davis got frightened.

"What is this Victoria?" he asked sotto voce of Johnson.

"Well bred enough," said Johnson, "but——" He elevated his eyebrows.

"There must be something to make them come at me like this," Davis opined.

"Don't you catch on?" asked Johnson, grinning. "It's the name—Victoria. This is merely an outburst of patriotism, my boy; and it's up to you to foster it."

Davis whistled and his face cleared. "Here you are," he shouted. "I'll lay Wikitoria! Four to one Wikitoria! Four to—Eight bob to two Wikitoria—take your ticket. Pound to a crown Wikitoria. I'll lay Wikitoria!"

At this juncture a native with an ugly but good-natured face forced his way to the front of the crowd.

"Hullo, Pine!"* said Red Jersey. "How you feel?"

"Oh, half," said Pine nonchalantly.

"You back Wikitoria?"

"I back a few poun'," replied Pine. "The ol' lady, Mrs. Moses, like to back him some now." He stepped aside and disclosed an extremely old woman, who had followed him through the crowd and was now squatting in the mud in front of Davis.

"The ol' lady want to know what price Wikitoria?" Pine asked.

∗ Pronounced "Pinney."

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"Four to one," said Davis.

Pine turned and communicated the information to the old dame, and an animated discussion ensued between the pair in their own language, frequent explanatory notes being supplied by the bystanders. Finally, Mrs. Moses seemed satisfied, and producing a handkerchief from her skirt, she undid a knot in one corner and took out a two-shilling piece.

"Na, he Wikitoria," she said.

"Eight bob to two Wikitoria," said Davis, pocketing the money.

The old woman examined the ticket from all points of view, felt it over carefully with her thumb, and at last stored it away in a separate corner of the handkerchief. Then she produced a pound note and handed it up to Davis.

"Na, he Wikitoria," she said again.

The natives, who evidently knew the old dame's style of doing business, nudged one another and watched Davis with sly delight as he wrote out a fresh ticket and handed it down.

Again the old lady examined her purchase, had the figures explained to her by Pine, felt it over with her thumb, and stowed it away. And again she took a pound note from the knot in her handkerchief.

"Na, he Wikitoria," she said stolidly.

A burst of laughter greeted the demand, and Pine and Red Jersey stamped their feet delightedly on the ground.

"Rum go this," said Davis doubtfully, as he wrote out a second ticket for five pounds.

There was a dead and expectant silence while Mrs. Moses assured herself of the authenticity of the document. Everything proving satisfactory, she again turned to the knot and produced yet another pound.

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"Na, he Wikitoria," she said, to the intense delight of the bystanders.

Davis scratched his ear as he looked down on the impassive old body, with her sphinx-like countenance and bright eyes.

"Don't let her break you," said Johnson, highly amused, and the bookmaker stretched out his hand for the money.

There were a few moments of keen expectation, during which every eye was riveted on the little wrinkled old creature inspecting her ticket. Would she or would she not? Carefully and methodically she at last knotted it with the others, and carefully and methodically she untied her money and produced still another note.

"Na, he Wikitoria," she said inevitably.

But this was altogether too much for the natives. Frantic with delight, they slapped their bodies and shook hands with and hugged one another. Pine, however, who had become aware that the performance was reflecting considerable glory on himself, saw fit to control his emotions.

"Ol' lady very good form to-day, Mr. Shonson," he said, with fluent ease.

"Go on," urged Johnson, as Davis showed signs of backing down. "Never say die."

Thus encouraged, the bookmaker entered up the fifth wager. "What's wanted? "he asked desperately.

The little wooden old woman, who grew only more deliberate with each transaction, made her customary examination of the ticket, and replied to his question by stonily passing up still another pound.

"Na," she said, "he Wikitoria."

"Not me," said Davis, drawing back amid the frantic page 106delight of the assemblage. "Two to one him." And two to one Victoria remained from that moment.

To the natives the victory of Mrs. Moses over the bookmaker seemed a certain precursor of the triumph of Victoria over her equine rivals, and thereafter they backed that animal at any price for all they were worth. In the saddling inclosure they surrounded the mare, praising her good points and congratulating themselves on their prospective winnings. Blucher and Merry Boy they regarded with contempt; Briseis was but little noticed, and even the Digger with his magnificent quarters was comparatively neglected. The idea of the horse named after the great, remote, ever-victorious Queen had caught the warm fancy of her devoted subjects, and a horse of far less merit than Victoria might equally, so named, have carried their money to the post.

But if the Maoris were assured of the virtue that lay in the name of their Sovereign, the gum-diggers were none the less certain of the splendid qualities concentrated in their namesake the Digger, and the betting ultimately developed into a fight between these two for the position of first favourite. The real horsey fraternity, however, including the men from Auckland and the bookmakers, to whom gambling was a matter not of sentiment, but of business, looked upon Briseis as a certain winner on the strength of previous performances, and thus the three horses continued almost upon an equality—the price of the two former being sustained by the public, and that of the latter by the disinclination of the bookmakers to lay.

Meanwhile a few events had been decided with more or less success, a certain amount of money had changed hands, a few men—natives and Europeans—had got page 107drunk, and one or two had become violent. In these cases the constable in attendance, acting on the principle that discretion is the better part of valour, watched his men until they were sufficiently far gone to offer but an impotent resistance, when he arrested them and roped them to the nearest fence until he was ready to go home. Some of them escaped, or were released by their mates and went off with the county rope as a perquisite; but one or two, falling asleep, escaped the attention of the crowd and were duly removed to durance vile.

The rain had now set in heavily and all prospect of the weather clearing before the close of the day was at an end. Many, especially such as were from remote districts, had begun to lose interest in the events still to come, and a good deal was heard of floods, bridges, and the possibility of fording creeks which lay between the pleasure-seekers and their various homes. Round the skirts of the inclosure parties could constantly be seen mounting their horses and riding rapidly away into the mist and rain.

Of all there assembled the Maoris appeared to be least affected by the inclemency of the weather. Wet to the skin, and with rheumatism, consumption, and death staring them in the face, they yet entered with childish enjoyment into the amusements provided for them by the superior devilry of the pakeha. On the now slippery course a number of natives, intoxicated with excitement and liquor, were driving their famished horses down the narrow grass alleys, no little to the danger of the crowd, which occasionally surged across the track in the neighbourhood of the booths. At length it became known that with the chief race of the day the meeting would be abandoned, and as this page 108was the next event on the card a more cheerful spirit diffused itself throughout the assemblage.

Roller made his way to the drinking-booth and obtained a glass of spirits. He had backed his horse, the Digger, for a considerable amount, though the comparative poverty of the district did not allow him to involve himself financially, in the event of that horse failing to win. He stood smoking and listening to those around him, occasionally exchanging a few words with a friend. He gathered from the hubbub—for the tent was full to overflowing—that Briseis still stood slightly in advance of the field, and that a third horse was backed on equal terms with his own. He said nothing, but confined himself to quietly taking the odds from everyone who offered, and the effect of this was that shortly before the starter's bell rang it was difficult to say which horse held the premier position.

Standing with his back to the bar, Roller commanded a view of the entrance to the tent. As he was on the point of moving a sound of raised voices and scuffling immediately outside the canvas attracted his attention, and turning from the person with whom he was at the moment conversing, he was in time to see the tent invaded by a tall, small-headed person, evidently under the influence of liquor. A momentary silence followed the advent of the stranger, who glared fiercely around him until his gaze fell and was fixed on the face of the prosperous storekeeper.

"There's that——Roller," he observed, apparently for his own information.

There is a tendency in human nature to delight in the humiliation of a successful man, and it would not be too much to say that a pleasurable feeling ran through the crowd as they waited in silence for the page 109further development of the scene. After the first start of surprise at the sound of his name Roller remained quietly sucking his cigar and apparently endeavouring to remember where he had previously encountered the ill-looking person before him. Suddenly a light of recollection gleamed in his eyes, and he said something in a low voice to the person beside him, who immediately left the booth.

"Gen'l'men all," said the man thickly, "and a damned nice crew you air," he broke off suddenly, with a scowl for those nearest to him; "as drunk a lot as ever I see."

This raised a laugh, in which the fellow joined, almost instantly resuming his ferocious look as his eye again fell on the storekeeper.

"There's two men," he remarked, with elaborate distinctness, "for which I'd sooner swing 'n drink beer, and that——'s one of 'em. Roller's 'is name and garden roller's 'is nature. He'd crush you like worms. There's many a——gum-digger 'as felt the weight of 'is thumb. The diggers 'as made 'im what 'e is; they're 'is slaves, you see, a bloomin' lot o' white slaves. He takes 'is profit out o' their gum, and 'e takes 'is profit out o' the food they eat and the clothes they put on their backs, and if 'e was to meet one on 'em dyin' on the road to-morrer 'e'd pass 'im by. That's Roller, that is. Some folks call 'im Mister Roller—I don't; Roller's good enough for me, the blasted little fat devil."

During this harangue Roller's face had darkened till it wore a look nearly as ferocious as that of the person who denounced him, but he neither spoke nor moved.

"Come, this is too much," said a gentleman in the crowd, and a murmur of approval greeted the words.

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"If you have any grievance against Mr. Roller, take it where it can be heard and redressed."

"He's a gambler," went on the man, taking no heed of the interruption, "and 'e bets with men poorer than 'isself. He's got more money than all the rest of you put together, and 'e uses it to ruin you every way 'e knows 'ow."

This assertion was so much like truth that it aroused the indignation of the whole assemblage. Cries of "Hit him!" "Chuck him out!" arose on all sides, and several even moved forward with the idea of putting these suggestions in practice.

At this moment the blue-coated figure of the local constable forced its way through the crowd at the door.

"What's all this?" he demanded, with the amazed indignation peculiar to his class.

"Take that man in charge, Howell," said Roller in a high voice, "for drunkenness and using abusive language. Here are plenty of witnesses."

"Very good, sir," said Howell, for Roller was a local J.P., and he touched the man on the shoulder.

The latter seemed astonished at this conclusion to the episode, and demanded in a dazed manner whether or no he lived in a free country.

"Too free," responded the constable, "while men like you are allowed to be at large. I know you!"

This was deliberately untrue, because, as a matter of fact, the constable did not know him from Adam. However, he slipped the handcuffs on as he spoke and endeavoured to lead his prisoner from the booth. The latter, who seemed to have become sobered by the predicament in which he found himself, at first offered no resistance, but when they reached the tent page 111door he turned suddenly and looked the storekeeper steadily in the face.

"My God," he said, "you've done a bad day's work."

"Now, none of that," said the constable, shaking him roughly by the arm. "Come along out of it."

"A damned bad day's work, Roller," repeated the man, unmoved, "and as long as you live you'll never do a worse." Then he suffered Howell to lead him quietly away.

The awkward silence which followed his disappearance was broken by the sound of the starter's bell, and the whole party, Roller among the rest, immediately made for the stand.

It is unpleasant to be called names, and however little one may feel oneself to merit it, abuse—as well as arousing suspicion in those who hear it—has a disastrous effect on a man's self-esteem.

The prosperous man, whose spine has assumed the rigidity of a steel poker—one of the most general outward and visible signs of social prosperity—is frequently by his exposed position in danger of such attacks, and he usually feels them the more severely in that his vertebral column has lost that flexibility which is the chief capital of a man who has yet to make his mark in the world.

Roller, as he ascended the stand, felt both sore and angry. The fact that no one had seen fit to allude to the scene subsequently to its occurrence was an additional offence, arguing as it did a feeling of delicacy among the auditors which could only be explained on the supposition that in their minds the necessity for such a feeling existed. An argument of this sort must not be thought too subtle for an egoist, who is apt when wounded to sound some of the least explored depths page 112of the human mind. It mattered little that the person who had so freely spoken his mind was not a respectable character; for if it be, as we are told, a sin against society to be found out, then it must be equally a sin to have one's credit shaken with the world, though the charges which effect that result be without foundation or only partly true. The man's allusion to the truck system in dealing with the diggers had hit Roller hard, for he was aware of certain transactions in the past which, were they known, might call forth the indignation of civilised beings. But the sorest insult to his pride was the likening him to a shark among minnows.

It would be too much to say that his interest in the forthcoming race was gone, but there had certainly been a large leakage of animal spirits, so that now he was inclined to be wrathful with the men who, standing up on the seats, clamoured and shoved around him, and with the rain, which, dripping from the brim of his hat, ran in a continual stream down the bridge of his nose.

When, however, the dip of the starter's flag liberated the horses from the post all thought of the insult he had received vanished in the excitement of the race.

The start was said to be a good one, and when the five horses engaged passed the post on the first round there was little to choose between them. After this there was a short interval, during which an occasional jacket might be seen to flash through an opening between two furze bushes on the other side of the course.

"By Jove!" exclaimed Johnson, who had never previously attended a country meeting, "this is the most exciting thing ever I was at. Can you see the horses anywhere?"

James, the committee-man, who was standing on the page 113seat uttering frantic bellows—intended for the encouragement of the steed he had backed—desisted on being roughly shaken. "I tell yon the last horse will win," he said excitedly.

"Even that wouldn't surprise me," said Johnson. "Only don't break the drum of my ear."

Three horses shot suddenly out of the gorse and passed the stand in a bunch, amid vociferous cheering. The other two had evidently run into a cul-de-sac, as the caps of the jockeys could be seen as they galloped hither and thither in the centre of the plain seeking an exit.

Johnson hugged himself delightedly. "I would not have missed this for a hundred pounds," he said.

"It's a great race," declared James, boiling over with excitement; "the best that has ever been run on this course. Isn't Blucher running a great horse? Did you notice him?" And without waiting for a reply, he again lifted up his voice and howled.

His faith in Blucher proved to be well placed, for he was the first horse to finish. The Digger, however, ran him very close, and but for the fact that his jockey mistook the track at the last moment, he would quite possibly have won.

As for Victoria, she was hopelessly out of it from the start, and not even the patriotic cheers of her numerous supporters sufficed to shift her, even momentarily, from her position of dead last.