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The Land of The Lost

Chapter XXV

page 226

Chapter XXV

"Your attendance is requested at a farewell social to be tendered to his lordship the Earl of Baringbroke, on the occasion of his departure for the Old Country. Time and place: 7·30, on the 15th inst., at the 'Scarlet Man.' N.B. Bring your music."

Such was the notice that Hugh found pinned to his tent when he awoke a couple of mornings after leaving Parawai. The 15th inst. happened to be the following day, and, his curiosity aroused, Hugh decided to make one at the gathering. He was influenced also by the fact that he did not intend to continue long at his present occupation, and the occasion seemed to offer an opportunity of himself bidding farewell to a few men he had met and liked. It was dark when he reached his destination, and the ceremonies, to judge by the noise which issued from the new building, had already begun. Passing through the bar, he discovered a passage that led him into the midst of the scene of festivities.

Two rows of tables ran the whole length of the as yet incompleted building, and a cross-table was placed between them at one end. Here, in the position of chairman, sat Bart, with a Maori mere lying ready to his hand. On his right was a short, thick-set individual of about middle age, with a beery but good-humoured countenance, whom Hugh identified as a digger of the name of John Dopping, while on the other hand of the chairman sat, greatly to Hugh's surprise, no less a page 227person than Roller. Fully a hundred guests were present, and a more motley and diversely clad assemblage it would have been difficult to get together anywhere. The tables were loaded with a cold collation of baked and boiled meats, sweets, and other viands, and a gleaming row of spirit bottles, every one so far with its seal immaculate and intact, adorned their centres. For the present the meeting was contenting itself with beer, and Upmore and three or four assistants were kept busily employed in supplying orders from a tapped barrel in one corner.

Upmore's quick glance soon detected the new-comer, and he came over to him. "Bart has kept a place for you near the top of the table," he said. "We have got the quieter ones up there. Come and I'll show you."

He led the way up the room, turning now and again to make sure that the young man followed him, and finally pausing at a chair about the second or third from the top. This was already occupied, but on a word from the innkeeper its occupant rose and passed round the centre table to the opposite side of the room. "Who is that man?" asked Hugh, frowning, and following the retreating figure with his eye.

"What man?" asked the innkeeper, gazing blankly at the faces around him.

"The man who was sitting here and has just gone away."

"I hardly noticed him," said Upmore; "I just told him this was your seat, and he went."

Hugh nodded without relaxing his countenance and sat down. From the position he now held he was favoured with a three-quarter-face view of the three personages who occupied the places of honour, and he was probably not more than three yards removed from the page 228furthest of them. His eye speedily met that of the storekeeper, and from that moment until the end came he never lost consciousness of Roller's presence.

After he had taken stock of those about him, Hugh looked round in vain for the guest of the evening, and it was not until the eatables were disposed of and the company had lit their pipes and settled down to steady drinking that enlightenment came. A few toasts were given and drunk with enthusiasm—"The Queen," "The Governor," etc.—and Bart again got to his feet to propose the toast of the evening.

"Gentlemen," he said (cheers). "Gentlemen, I say again (vociferous cheering)—I am not now alluding to those persons who continue to interrupt the chair (dead silence). It is now my pleasant duty to propose to you a toast which I am sure you will all drink with enthusiasm. You all of you know the Earl of Boling-broke"—after a whisper from the person beside him—"I should say Billingsgate "—after further whispering—"Boosingbloke?" (laughter and "Keep it at that, Bart," from the audience). Well, at all events, gentlemen, you know John Dopping (loud cheers). You know 'Dop the digger' (enthusiastic cheers and a chorus of "Good old Dop!"), and when you know him, gentlemen, I will venture to say that you know a—a man, gentlemen, who, be his name what it will, is the equal of any two dozen of your ordinary earls ("Hear, hear!"). Gentlemen, for years past you have had in your midst, walking about amongst you, sharing in your toils and pleasures, a potential earl. For long it seemed that this virtue lying latent in our friend Dopping ("Good old Dop!") was never destined to reveal itself. But the wheels of circumstance, though they grind slowly, grind exceeding small, and they have eventually ground Dopping into a page 229peer. By a fortunate concatenation of unlooked-for but—knowing Dopping—we cannot doubt pre-ordained events, the whole of Mr. Dopping's relations, or at any rate, the most essential of them, have been annihilated in a railway accident, and simple gentleman as he sits before you, he is at this moment, by the rights of birth and inheritance, a peer of the proudest and most glorious aristocracy of the earth (cries of "Good on Dop!" and loud cheers). Gentlemen, I have not to enumerate to this gathering the virtues for which his lordship has made himself famous wherever the field of the digger extends, they are all well known to you all (cheers). As a friend in need, there are few of us here to whom he has not at some time recommended himself, and as a boon companion I challenge this company to produce his equal. I have further to tell you that though this entertainment purports to be tendered by the diggers, the whole of the expenses have been borne by his lordship, and there will be—no collection (loud and enthusiastic cheers). Gentlemen, I have no more to say. I ask you now to charge your glasses and drink to the long life and prosperity of the Earl of—Dopping" (loud and prolonged applause, including "For he's a jolly good fellow" and "Three cheers for Dop!"). "Shentlemen," said the Earl of Baringbroke thickly, rising to his feet and beaming good-naturedly on the assemblage. "I have to shank you forsh magnifshent reception. I may shay that my feelings overcome me to such'n exten' that—hic (laughter and applause, during which the speaker's voice is drowned). When I shee 'roun' me men I have known many years, with'om—exshellent shairman jus' said—shared pleasurean' toils, I feel—hic (loud applause and chorus, "Good old Dop!"). So, shentlemen—only to say how page 230mush I reprociciate (cheers)—should say re-prixocate (renewed cheering)—in fact, re-cip-o-hic—" (tremendous applause, during which his lordship completes his remarks and sits down, still smiling with the utmost goodwill).

"The next item," said the chairman, "will be a song by Mr. Richard Harrowell: "The Exile's Return."

Hugh sat listening to the songs and recitations and the conversation of those around him, trying to read by external indications something of the life-story of those who came under his notice. A short distance down the table on the other side sat a tall, emaciated man in seedy black, whom he knew by the sobriquet of "the Parson." He was drinking with an appalling resolution, and his mirthless conversation was charged with the most dreadful oaths and blasphemies. Each drink he took appeared to nauseate him, and he grew steadily whiter as the evening advanced; yet the torrent of invective that flowed from his lips knew no abatement and, if possible, increased in virulence with every tumblerful of spirit he consumed. In spite of himself, Hugh's gaze returned again and again with a sort of horrified fascination to this creature. He seemed to be the butt of those around him, and apparently the withering retorts, betraying unmistakable evidences of education, with which he replied to the banter of his tormentors merely served to increase their amusement. The chief instigator of the attack was a little foxy man, known as "Six-and-eight"—and it may be said generally that whatever names these men may have inherited, or may have used with the object of obtaining credit at the stores, they were known by no others than those given on the field—who appeared to take immeasurable delight in drawing the lightning of "the Parson's" attention upon himself. Looking down the tables and noting page 231the various groups into which the assemblage had by a sort of natural selection divided itself, Hugh wondered how often the tragedy being enacted before his eyes was repeated in various parts of the room. His reverie was interrupted by the voice of the chairman, now high and slightly unsteady. He was half singing, half reciting some verses that fitted in curiously with the young man's mood:—

"This is the lay of the digger, the song of the seeker of gum, Sung in a kerosene twilight, to the tune of the kerosene drum; The lay of the sick and the sorry, the men who have drawn God's wrath, Warbled in tent and whare everywhere over the North."

Between Hugh and Roller three persons intervened; two were seated at the centre table and the other immediately above Hugh, on his left hand. One he indentified as Armitage, the second storekeeper of Parawai; the other two were strangers to him. One of them was a man verging on middle age, but plainly marked for the grave. His face was gaunt and of an unhealthy creamy whiteness, relieved only by a brilliant blot of colour in either cheek. His eyes were large and uncanny in their lustre, and he spoke in a beautifully modulated voice that had the trick of dropping every now and then into a minor key. While he spoke his eyes continually swept the hall, lighting every now and then on a face and lingering there only to lift abruptly again, in a manner which through some association of ideas reminded Hugh of a butterfly. His companion was a man perhaps a few years younger, whose chief characteristics were a prognathous jaw and a brutal laugh, that repeated itself almost with the regularity of clockwork. For a while Hugh heard only the tones of their voices, but at length a few words reached him page 232which brought the blood to his cheeks, and after that the language of "the Parson" became tolerable.

How wonderful and mysterious were the bonds of sin and failure that united all these men together! Here were the scourings and scum of humanity, the top and bottom of the world's social system, driven by a multiplicity of causes to a common life. Again Hugh heard Bart's voice like an echo of his thoughts:—

"In the eyes of a woman we found it,
In the kiss we construed as a sign,
In the leap of the steeplechaser,
In the glow of the whisky and wine."

Presently from the bottom of the room and rapidly spreading upwards came a drumming of tumblers and a chorus which Hugh recollected to have frequently heard on Bart's lips:—

"The new-chum and, the scum,
And the scouring of the slum,
And the lawyer and the doctor and the deaf and halt and dumb,
And the parson and the sailor and the welsher and the whaler,
When the world is looking glum
Just to keep from Kingdom Come
Take to digging kauri gum."

There was a cry of "Order!" and Bart, pulling himself together, took up the solo in a strong, not unmelodious voice.

"In the slighted, blighted North, where the giant kauris grow,
And the earth is bare and barren where the bush-bee used to hum,
When the luck we've followed's failing, and our friends are out of hailing,
And it's getting narrow sailing by the rocks of Kingdom Come,
There's a way of fighting woe, squaring store bills as you go,
In the trade of digging gum.

"And the new-chum and the scum, etc.
page 233 "In the scrubby, grubby North, when the giddy sun is set,
And the idiot-owl cicada drops the whirring of his drum;
When the night is growing thicker and the bottled candles flicker,
And the damned mosquitoes bicker in a diabolic hum,
There's a way of ending fret and of pulling down a debt
In the task of scraping gum.

"And the new-chum and the scum, etc.
"In the sloppy, floppy North, through the dismal winter rain,
When the man is merely muscle and the mind is nearly numb,
When the old, old pains rheumatic fill the bones from base to attic
And a sound of words erratic sets the pannikins a-thrum,
There's a way of killing Cain and an antidote to pain
In the task of hooking gum.

"And the new-chum and the scum, etc.
"And the man of law has gambled through another man's estate,
And the doctor's special weakness at the present time is rum,
And the parson loves the clocking on a pretty maiden's stocking,
And his sermons (mostly shocking) scare the neophyte new-chum;
By the smouldering tea-tree fire, when the wind is howling higher,
They are cracking jokes that blister the Recording Angel's slate,
And the matters that they mention are too primitive to state
At the scraping of the gum.

"But the new-chum and the scum,
And the scouring of the slum,
And the lawyer and the doctor and the deaf and halt and dumb,
And the parson and the sailor and the welsher and the whaler,
When the Day of Judgment's come,
Oh, won't they be looking glum,
As the mighty trumpets thunder and the harps go tinkle-tum,
And they've finished with the digging and they've scraped the final crumb,
And the bottom's gone for ever from the trade of kauri gum!"

page 234

For a long time the humming and drumming continued, and it seemed as though after this the assembly had little patience for further songs and recitations. As time wore on the drink began to have its effect in a loosening of tongues and as it were the letting down the barriers of a hundred dispositions, and only those performers with bull-like voices and perfect self-conceit managed to struggle through to the end of their items. From the bottom of the table on the other side of the room came an uproar of laughter and dispute with in the midst of it the sound of a high, querulous, maudlin voice; and here and there at other parts of both tables there were indications that the fighting drunks were getting under weigh. The sound of breaking tumblers came with increasing frequency. Men could be seen asleep with their arms stretched across the table, and one or two had retired into a corner, where they lay huddled up in serene unconsciousness of their surroundings.

Hugh himself had drunk next to nothing, and so far from being exhilarated by what he did take he had gradually lapsed into a mood of depression. So long as the gathering remained for the most part sober, it had possessed many points of interest which had served to amuse him and hold his attention; but the prospect of a prolonged and drunken orgy repelled him, and only the desire to save Bart from ending the evening in the dead-house prevented him leaving his seat.

As for Bart, he had by this time entirely lost control of the meeting, a fact of which, however, he remained in complete ignorance. Every now and then he would rise to his feet, thump the table vigorously with the club, pounding a glass or two in the process, and deliver a page 235speech or other matter in a voice that never rose above the uproar.

No one paid the slightest attention to him, and each occasion saw him retain his balance with greater difficuty.

Roller also had been drinking steadily, and was beginning to show the effects of the liquor he had taken in an increased insolence of manner. He had made a short speech in reply to the toast of the "Storekeepers," but had not otherwise taken an active part in the proceedings. Most of his conversation was addressed to Armitage, who appeared flattered at the other's attention and followed his remarks with a show of deep interest. Once or twice Hugh had found the eyes of the pair bent on himself, as though he were the subject of conversation, and as the evening wore on the insolence of their manner began to cause him annoyance. The cold stare with which he regarded them had its effect on Armitage, who would turn away in a shamefaced manner, but Roller was not so easily daunted, meeting Hugh's looks with a sneering smile and continuing his remarks to his companion, no little apparently to the latter's amusement.

The innkeeper, looking somewhat haggard and anxious, was moving round the tables taking away the empty bottles and occasionally, when the opportunity occurred, purloining a full one. Except when addressed, he spoke to no one, but his hawk-like glance roamed hither and thither, taking in every incident. As for the guest of the evening, he had long since ceased to take any prominent part in the proceedings. He dozed peacefully with his chin on his chest, only rousing in response to a violent shaking from Bart, when he would drum solemnly on the table with the butt end of a bottle and request Bart to "give it a name."

page 236

It was shortly after midnight that Hugh observed a figure bearing a lantern come rapidly up the hall and approach Bart. He was clad in a long coat pulled up about the ears, and his hat was drawn down over his eyes, yet there was something in the manner in which he moved which enabled Hugh to identify his friend Jess Olive. The advent of this strange figure caused a lull in the noise at the upper end of the hall, even "the Parson" pausing in his diabolic eloquence to watch the scene.

Jess laid his hand on Bart's shoulder. "Come, lad," he said, "it's time to go home."

Bart, arrested in the act of rising to announce a fresh imaginary item, turned and looked glassily at the person who interrupted him.

"Why, it's Olive!" said Roller, with a laugh. "Where's Upmore? Here, Upmore, you're wanted."

Upmore approached and said something in a low voice to Olive.

"You can spare one," Hugh heard him reply; "it's only Bart I want."

"Put him in the dead-house," said Roller; "that'll settle him."

Upmore smiled cunningly and looked from one face to another.

"In with him, Upmore," repeated Roller, and a chorus of drunken approval greeted the suggestion.

Jess shrank back. "No, no!" he cried. "Let me take Bart away, and I will not trouble you any more. What difference will one make to you?"

The innkeeper looked doubtfully about him, but at length, in response to a whispered suggestion from Roller, he beckoned to his assistants.

Hugh rose leisurely and walked round to the back of page 237the table. "It's all right, Jess," he said encouragingly, "you are not going in."

"Who's going to stop him?" asked Roller, turning in his seat.

"I am," replied Hugh, nodding; "he's not going in."

"Put him in, Upmore," said Roller slowly. "We'll stand by you and see it done. Don't let a gutter thief like that prevent you."

"The first man that lays a hand on him," said Hugh steadily, "goes down."

Roller gnawed his lip and looked savagely round the group.

"Are you all afraid of him?" he asked. Then, with a sudden insane fury, he seized his glass of spirits and threw the contents fair in Hugh's face. "Take that, you hound!" he cried.

Maddened by the repeated insults and their gross culmination, Hugh darted forward, and seizing the storekeeper by the collar of his coat, dragged him backwards on to the floor; then, turning him on his face, he pinioned his arms behind his back. "Get the key and open the door, Upmore," he said.

"What do you propose to do, Mr. Clifford?" asked the innkeeper, shrinking back.

"Open the door," thundered Hugh, "or I will put you in with him."

"Gentlemen," said Upmore, "I call you all to witness that I am not responsible for this. I am acting under compulsion. Mr. Roller, I am not a willing participator in this outrage."

"Blast you!" screamed the storekeeper. "Grab hold of him! he's breaking my arms."

"Lie still, you cur!" said Hugh, glaring round the dangerous-looking crowd that had now swarmed over page 238the table and surrounded them. "If there is a man here with the heart of a dog," he said, "let him give me a hand to lock this drunken brute in the deadhouse."

The Earl of Baringbroke, aroused from and partly sobered by his slumbers, had been watching the scene with beery good-humour, as though under the impression that it was an entertainment got up in his especial honour. He now rose, and removing his coat, laid it with elaborate care on the seat he had just vacated. He then rolled up his shirt-sleeves and spat on his hands. "Give it a name," he said.

"Grip hold of his legs," directed Hugh, and this after a brief struggle was accomplished.

"Now, up with him," and Roller was swung into the air.

Meanwhile Bart had watched the proceeding with a drunken solemnity, occasionally crying, "Order! order!" in shocked tones. At length, however, the full significance of what was occurring appeared to penetrate his dulled wits, and he got unsteadily to his feet

"Gen'l'men," he said, "Cliffor' man o' genius. Put Upmore in too." And he went straight for the innkeeper.

A shout of laughter greeted the suggestion, and a still louder shout followed when Bart, advancing, met the fist of some person standing behind Upmore and collapsed in a heap on the floor.

"I'll give a hundred pounds to the man who frees me," roared Roller, black in the face with impotent rage. "One hundred pounds! Do you hear, Upmore?"

"Make room there," said Hugh, beginning to advance. "Upmore, unlock the door."

page 239

The innkeeper shrugged his shoulders and began to lead the procession round the hall.

"Bear witness, gentlemen all," he repeated, "that I am acting under compulsion. This is none of my doing."

"One hundred pounds," repeated Roller, struggling violently.

"Make it guineas," suggested Bart. There was a big lump on his forehead, and he appeared to some extent sobered by the blow.

"I'll give two hundred," shrieked Roller, as they squeezed through the passage and across the bar.

"Think better of it, Mr. Clifford," said Upmore, as they reached the dead-house.

"Open the door," said Hugh inflexiby, "and stand aside. Look out to let go when I tell you, Dopping."

A dim light from the bar penetrated to where they stood, but was powerless to solve the gloom that lay beyond the open door of the dead-house. Only with difficulty were the leaders of the procession able to prevent themselves from being forced through the doorway by the pressure of the excited crowd behind. There was a brief struggle, a blow or two interchanged, then the door swung to, and the key was turned in the lock. An uproarious cheer greeted the completion of the performance, and the crowd began pushing and struggling back to the hall. Hugh pocketed the key and followed, a sound of furious kicking and muffled oaths pursuing him from the region of the prison.

When they reached the bar the Earl of Baringbroke took Hugh aside.

"Give me your hand," he said. "You are a man; but trouble will come of this."

Hugh gripped the hand extended to him.

page 240

"Thank you for your help," he said. "The fellow got less than he deserved, but then, it is always best to temper justice with mercy."

"If anything should come of it," said the Earl, "rely on me to stand by you. I should consider it an honour to help you in any way in my power."

Hugh again thanked him, and they re-entered the hall. A few regarded them curiously, but the majority apparently had already forgotten the incident, and were again devoting themselves to the bottles.

Hugh made his way to the top of the room, where Jess was still standing, anxiously awaiting their approach. Hugh threw the key down on the centre table.

"Gentlemen," he said, "you were all witnesses to what occurred previous to my laying a hand on the man, and I leave you to decide the duration of his punishment. When you think that he has had enough, there is the key and you can let him out."

He took Olive's arm and looked round for Bart, but the latter was nowhere to be seen. Having scanned the tables without discovering anything of him, he re-entered the bar. The place was dark and deserted, but a sound of voices came from the diningroom beyond, and here Hugh discovered the innkeeper screwing down the lamp. Hugh looked about him, surprised to find that the man was alone.

"No," said Upmore, in answer to his inquiry; "isn't he inside? But surely you are not going yet?" he added.

"Yes, I am," said Hugh curtly. "I have had enough of it. You'll find the key inside, and can please yourself what you do with it after I am gone. Come on, Jess."

page 241

"Aren't we going to find Bart?" Jess asked when they were alone.

"We can take another look, if you like," said Hugh, "but it seems to me he is gone already."

They again went round the hall, scrutinising every face, but without success, and finally gave up the search and passed out into the starlit night.

Hugh drew a breath of relief as he looked up into the clear sky, and after a while the anger that had possessed him melted away. Jess, still carrying his lantern, drew close to him and linked his arm in his with a little laugh of apology. Hugh whistled cheerfully, and so they went forward along the silent road.