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The Land of The Lost

Chapter XXI

page 184

Chapter XXI

Finding Hugh a patient and intelligent listener, the doctor took a fancy to him, and as a result he remained a guest at the house for over a week. There was nothing surprising in this, colonial up-country hospitality being built on such broad lines that the request for a glass of water from a passing stranger has been known to terminate in an invitation to stay a month.

The prolonged visit was entirely pleasing to Wilfrid, who was thus able to argue with and bully the young man to his heart's content. At first he spread his remarks with an impartial regularity over the whole day, just as they occurred to him, but after a day or two he came forward with the suggestion that they should devote an uninterrupted hour to the matter every day.

"It will give you time to work the thing up," Hugh said drily; "just as you please."

"What hour would be most convenient to you?" Wilfrid asked considerately.

"Get it over as early as you can," Hugh stipulated.

So immediately after breakfast every morning the two retired to the room on the side verandah, and there Esther, in passing frequently, heard Wilfrid's voice traversing the heights of argument, his speeches punc-page 185tuated by growls from his victim. Punctually as the clock rang out the hour, Hugh opened the door and came out. There was no variation to this performance, and Esther got quite accustomed to seeing them emerge at the same moment daily, Hugh like a great schoolboy released from his lessons, and Wilfrid with an exasperated look in his eyes and a repressed smile—due to his sense of the humour of the situation—on his lips. Before this arrangement was agreed upon Esther had been a frequent witness to the discussions, but as she never interfered between them except occasionally to register her applause in a little peal of laughter, she came to be regarded as neutral, and later on her society was tacitly allowed to be neutral territory.

Except for the one hour the days belonged to the three, and for two of them at least were wholly pleasant. They spent them in the orchard or in wandering in the bush on the outskirts of the settlement, or in cantering along the soft roads into the shadow of the great kauri bush, or among the interminable billows of the gumfield, where nothing was gay except the unceasing sunlight Once, Hugh desiring to pay a visit to his abandoned tent, they rode past the "Scarlet Man," where they were surprised to see an alteration being effected to the building: a large room, thirty or forty feet long and twenty wide, had been thrown out from one side and was now approaching completion.

"What can that be for?" wondered Hugh.

"I expect Roller has started on the European," Wilfrid said, "and the European is building an opposition store to collar the trade of the field."

They found the tent apparently undisturbed, and Esther again looked with interest on the scene of her page 186startling adventure. Every detail of the night came back to her as she gazed.

"Look, Wilfrid," she exclaimed; "here is where I was sitting when that horrible man came in."

"What, Hugh? No wonder you were alarmed."

"And the pistol—have you got the pistol, Mr. Clifford? Do show it to Wilfrid."

Hugh went obediently to his wardrobe and began turning out the things, as she remembered seeing him do on the night of the accident, but this time he went through them twice without result.

"Funny thing that," he said reflectively, and commenced tossing the rugs about and overhauling the tinware.

"It's gone," said Esther, with sudden conviction; "it is no good looking for it."

"Why should you think that?" he asked, surprised.

"Because there is something uncanny about this place," she said, with a shiver. "You have things one minute, and the next they are gone."

"You are thinking of your jewellery," said Clifford, "but I never lost anything before then, or since, till now." And again he began searching among the contents of the haversack.

"It's no good," insisted Esther, with confidence. "Why did that man want to kill you?" she demanded, frowning. "What had you done to him?"

"Nothing, please, miss," he replied.

"Has he been quarrelling with someone else?" Wilfrid asked.

"All I know is," said Esther, "that that man stole in here armed with a tomahawk thinking to find him and found me instead. That was not done without cause."

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"Out with it, Hugh," said Wilfrid. "What have you been up to?"

"There is nothing to conceal," said Hugh, giving up his search for the pistol and bundling his possessions back into their places. "It was one day on the gum-field; he came up behind me with a spade, and we had a bit of a scramble; that was all."

"Why did he come up behind you with a spade?"

"Don't know, unless he wanted my gum."

"But that's slightly mysterious, isn't it?" asked Wilfrid. "I suppose the diggers are not in the habit of murdering one another for the sake of a few pounds of gum. Was there nothing else?"

"Nothing so far as I was concerned," said Hugh. "I had never seen the man before to my knowledge."

He had been engaged while he spoke in opening a collection of tins and inspecting their contents, and he now turned to Esther. "Shall I make you some tea?" he asked.

"Won't it take a long while?" she inquired.

"Only a couple of minutes to boil the water in the frying-pan."

"Whoever heard of such a thing?" exclaimed Esther, her eyes dancing with amusement. "Is that how you make your tea?"

Hugh nodded. "You can fry the water in half the time you can boil it," he explained.

Wilfrid became enthusiastic on the spot. "This has got to be done, Esther," he said. "Hugh is evidently a strategist of a very high order, and we cannot get fried tea every day."

The fire was soon alight and the tea made. "I am sorry I cannot offer you any milk," their host said, as page 188he passed round the cups; "the only tin I had has gone sour."

"Never mind the milk," said Wilfrid; "it would spoil the flavour of the smoke. Get out the cake."

But the establishment contained nothing save cabin-bread, and after tasting this Esther declared that it looked better than it tasted. "Don't you ever have bread and butter?" she asked compassionately.

"Oh, yes," said Hugh, "but the butter has gone rancid, and I make the bread, you know, as I require it."

"I don't believe a word of it," said Wilfrid. "Get out the frying-pan again and let's see you."

"Do you make the bread in the frying-pan?" Esther asked, deeply interested.

"I make it in the camp oven when I have time," Hugh said; "but when I am in a hurry I just bake it in the ashes. Shall I make you some?"

"It would be a shame to put you to all that trouble," Esther replied longingly.

"It is no trouble at all," replied their host, procuring a tin basin from his stores and half filling it with flour. "It takes no time to make and not much longer to cook." He poured out some clean water from the billy and began to stir the mixture with an iron spoon.

"Don't you put any baking-powder in?" Esther asked.

"No," replied Hugh, with conviction.

"Nor any salt?"

"Yes," he admitted, pausing in his labours, "when you remember it you do," and he proceeded to remember it by shaking in a few coarse lumps from one of his tins.

"What do you do next? "Esther asked presently, as page 189he stopped stirring, and looked with doubtful reflection at the spoon.

"I was trying to remember whether you do put baking-powder in after all," he admitted; "but I don't think you do, and anyway it doesn't matter."

"Not a ha'porth," said Wilfrid encouragingly; "the more things you leave out the less you are likely to regret it."

When the mixture had been sufficiently stirred, Hugh turned his attention to the fire. "It hasn't been burning quite long enough," he said, "but we'll risk it"; and removing the flaming wood, he laid the dough among the embers and covered over. After the lapse of twenty minutes or half an hour the expert proceeded to withdraw the damper from its bed of ashes.

"Oh, what a lovely smell!" said Esther.

"Yes," said Hugh, with a shade of misgiving, "that is sometimes the best part of it."

"Perhaps you had better consider you have had your share, Esther," Wilfrid suggested.

"It gets a bit cindery and ashy," their host allowed, as he deposited it on the box that served for a table, "but if you just brush it over, and if it is properly cooked inside, it is not so bad as you might suppose." He put a knife into it as he spoke, and immediately a pale substance of the consistency of treacle ran out of the interior.

"What a pity!" said Esther, who looked really disappointed. "If we had only let it bake a little longer!"

"The fire was not quite ready," explained Hugh; "but damper is generally like this, and you can usually eat the outside."

These culinary feats achieved, the party again took page 190to the road. On their way back, some distance beyond the inn, they overtook Roller, who was returning in a bad temper from a stormy interview with Upmore. His smouldering gaze swept the party and dwelt with distaste on Hugh. Then he fell in between Wilfrid and Esther, and endeavoured to manœuvre the latter into the rear.

"How are you getting on with the European?" Wilfrid asked, in the drily humorous manner that always jarred on the storekeeper.

"That is my business," was the blunt reply.

"Certainly," said Wilfrid, with the utmost smoothness. "And in order to assist me in a desire to know nothing of your business, pray do not in future intrude your private affairs on the mixed company of a dinner table."

With such smiling equanimity was this reply delivered that it was not until the lapse of some seconds that Roller recognised it as a gage of battle. He had not intended to be especially rude to Wilfrid; on the contrary, he desired, if anything, to propitiate him, seeing, as he could not avoid seeing, how high he stood in Esther's regard; and during the last week he had begun to think that he might have need of an ally if his engagement with Esther was to stand. His coarse-grained temperament was, in fact, not equal to grasping the offensiveness of the rebuff he had administered, and he was slightly nonplussed at its effect.

Ever since their interview in the garden, the storekeeper had thought a great deal about Esther, and if his love for her had not hitherto been passionate, it was now in a fair way to become so. Her manner towards him, he could not fail to notice, had undergone a subtle page 191change, and at every fresh meeting their relations appeared to become more difficult. During the first months of their engagement none of this strain had existed; they met and parted daily with good-will, and the girl's manner, if lacking in lover-likeness, was always frank and affectionate and apparently without tinge of regret. She appeared to look forward to their marriage, not perhaps with eagerness, but at least with confidence. Now things were quite different, and he asked himself why. What had he done or what had occurred to render her, as she described it, uncertain of herself? To this plain questioning his mind, under the influence of his pride, gave but cloudy replies. If he admitted anything, it was that the beginning of the estrangement dated from the time of the races; but the upshot of all his meditations was a mortal antipathy to Hugh. What was the connection between "that gum-digger fellow" and the Hamilton family, that they invited him to the house and called him by his christian name? He might have been satisfied on this point simply by propounding the question, but he preferred to treat the matter with contempt and remain in ignorance. As a rule he ignored Hugh's presence altogether, but he was not above a contemptuous allusion to gum-diggers when the opportunity offered, and as the days went by a secret jealousy prompted him to the making of such occasions when they did not occur spontaneously.

"Where have you been, Esther?" he asked, gulping down the wrathful feelings aroused by Wilfrid's retort.

"As far as Mr. Clifford's tent," Esther replied. "Mr. Clifford has been giving us afternoon tea."

"It's well to be a gum-digger," said Roller, sarcastically, "able to ride about the country as you please. What wages are you making, Clifford?"

page 192

"Sufficient," replied Hugh. "What is your weekly turnover?"

Roller smiled darkly. "I suppose," he said, "that is funny; but it strikes me as being impudent as well, and I do not allow people to be impudent to me."

"I take very little interest in what you allow," Hugh replied indifferently.

"What is the matter with you all?" Esther asked, reining in her horse and regarding the whole company with reproachful eyes.

"We might have set it down to the effects of the damper," Wilfrid said, "but that Mr. Roller did not partake of it. Forgive us, and we will endeavour to mend our manners."

Very little, however, was said during the remainder of the ride, and as the storekeeper parted from them at Dr. Hamilton's gate there was a feeling in the hearts of all four that trouble was at hand.