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The Land of The Lost

Chapter III

page 15

Chapter III

The new-comer loosened the straps at his shoulders and allowed his baggage to fall upon the verandah. "I have to go back to Parawai for my tent," he explained; "but I should like something to eat and drink first, if it is to be had."

"There may be something," said Upmore, without stirring.

"Anything to stay the pangs," said the young man cheerfully. "I shall leave these things here," he added, "and be back in the morning."

Upmore turned on his heel and led the way into the dining-room, where the table was already spread with a not overclean cloth, a battered castor, and some knives and forks. The visitor threw himself on the worn horsehair sofa, and looked on while the woman completed her preparations for dinner. Upmore mean-while, with a cat-like tread peculiar to him, wandered restlessly in and out, as though he were looking for someone. "Where is that boarder?" he asked of the woman at length.

"In the dead-house," she replied.

The innkeeper looked relieved, and taking his seat at the table, began to cut up the steak.

"Someone dead?" asked the young man sympathetically.

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Upmore turned the steak over as though in search of a more vulnerable point than that he had at first attacked. "No," he said thoughtfully, "we have to put him in there at times; he won't keep out of the bar."

"I see," said the young man. "What is he?"

"Well, when he's drunk he says he's Sir Charles Medway, but when he's sober he doesn't let on who he is."

"And how does he live?"

"Like everyone else about here," replied Upmore, "digging gum."

"I suppose a man can get a living at it all right?" the young man inquired a little anxiously.

Upmore looked at him reflectively and nodded.

At this moment sounds as of someone violently kicking at a closed door became audible from the rear of the house, and a minute or so later a man appeared in the doorway of the dining-room. He was a dishevelled-looking creature of about thirty-five, dressed in the ordinary rough clothing of the digger. His hair was long and unkempt, and there was a week's growth of stubble on his chin. His features were clear cut and aquiline, and might originally have been termed refined, but there was a bloated look about the cheeks and around the bloodshot eyes.

"Why do you keep shoving me in that beastly hole?" he asked sulkily, as he took his seat at the table.

"Just so no one shall interfere with you," said the innkeeper in a conciliatory tone. "It's handier than taking you up to bed, Bart."

Bart looked furtively at the other guest, who was regarding him with frank curiosity. "Drop your page 17Barts," he said. "You know what my name is well enough. Who's your friend?"

"My name is Clifford," said the young man, smiling.

"And mine is Higgins," said the other. "Some of them call me Sir Charles, or Bart, but that's merely the local substitute for a joke. What are you doing here?"

"I am going to start gum-digging," said Clifford apologetically.

Bart sniffed and pushed away his plate with an air of disgust. "Where do you get your beef, Upmore?" he asked savagely. "I believe this is the same blooming bull you served up yesterday. Call this a hotel? For God's sake let us have some beer—none of your cask stuff. Bring a couple of bottles and let me see the corks before you open them."

Upmore rose obediently, and presently returned with bottles and glasses. Bart satisfied himself that the flasks had not been tampered with, and permitted them to be opened.

"Will you join me, Mr. ——, I forget what you said your name was."

"Clifford," said the innkeeper, looking sideways at the man whose name he mentioned.

"Allow the gentleman to speak for himself," said Bart; "he may have changed his mind."

"Not I," said Clifford, laughing and accepting the proffered hospitality. "Is that also the local substitute for a joke?"

"There's no joke about that," said Bart, "it's a necessity. When you have knocked about here for a bit you will probably find that your real name is worse than no good to you. There are a few, I can tell you, who have had so many aliases that they have forgotten page 18their correct patronymic, and wouldn't remember it if they heard it; and there are others," he added gloomily, setting down his empty glass, "who would only he too glad to forget, but can't. Your name may be Clifford, but you don't suppose that chap's name is Upmore, do you?" he concluded, with a vindictive glance at the innkeeper.

Clifford, detecting signs of annoyance on the face of the person alluded to, hastened to change the subject. "You have had a good deal of experience at gumdigging, I suppose," he said.

"I suppose I have," was the curt reply; "and I would pay you a good round sum to take it off me."

"I can't see why gum-digging shouldn't be as respectable as anything else," argued Clifford.

"You can't," said Bart, "but you will. Respectable! Good Lord! Listen to him!" he went on bitterly. "Why, this is the stranding-ground of the dead-beats of the world; this is where all the wrecks of the earth are thrown up to rot—and you talk about respectability! Every inch of this north country is poisoned with dead hopes, and it will never be any good till the gum is gone out of it. Do you mean to tell me that you come here voluntarily and of your own free will? Rubbish! This country is peopled under the lash." He rose as he spoke and made his way in the direction of the bar.

"Bart's a curious chap," said the innkeeper. "He can only be agreeable when he's drunk; he's not the same man then. What part of the country do you come from?"

The question was put abruptly, and the young man seemed slightly staggered under it. "Down south," he replied vaguely.

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"Taranaki or Hawke's Bay way?" asked the innkeeper insinuatingly. "I used to know a Clifford in Hawke's Bay—I knew of him, rather—a station holder in a big way."

"The name is not a rare one," said the young man, pushing back his chair.

Upmore was about to make some further remark when a sound of glass jingling in the bar interrupted him, and he rose. "I believe he's found the bottle," he said sotto voce.

"Do your customers help themselves?" Clifford asked.

"Only when there's no one about to attend to them, you know," the innkeeper replied cautiously. "Bart's like one of the family," he added; "he's a contract boarder."

"Does he live here altogether?" the young man inquired.

The innkeeper peered across into the bar and partially closed the door. "It's a good system," he said a little eagerly. "You just pay your cheque down, you know, and you get carte blanche. It might be an advantage to you if you are going gum-digging. What? Just a trifle on account."

He approached quite close to Clifford as he spoke, and the young man noticed that his long, lean hands were closing and expanding in a manner that promised a warm reception to the "trifle on account."

"I think I'll try the open air," he said; "thanks all the same. But I'll remember your system in case I should require to take advantage of it."

"Quite so," said Upmore, drawing back and slowly resuming his ordinary demeanour. "We'll make you welcome. What might your age be now?"

Again the personal question came so abruptly that page 20the young man hesitated before he answered. "I have just turned twenty-three," he replied at length.

The innkeeper reflected an instant and then nodded. "Well," he said, "think it over when you come back. I'll go and look after Bart. I believe he's found the bottle."

As Clifford had noticed quite a number of bottles on the shelf over the counter, he was curious to know what was intended by the use of the definite adjective in conjunction with the word bottle, and he followed Upmore into the bar.

Bart was sitting on a stool behind the counter with a bottle clutched between his knees and a long glass beside him.

"Come on, Clifford," he called in high glee. "I've got the beggar now. Get a glass and join in. This is the mother-tincture, my boy—the true aqua vitæ—the parent spirit. All the rest, except the bottled beer, is water and fusil oil and logwood and the very devil. Would you!"—he broke off as the innkeeper anxiously endeavoured to secure possession of his property—"Hands off, or I'll waste it over your skull. Look at the beggar frothing at the mouth! Now I'll just let you into the secrets of the trade, Clifford, my boy. That bottle over his head is Rum Number One; it's given to white men, and it's non-poisonous. The next—Number Two—is reserved for low whites and diggers; it'll drive you mad, but it won't kill you. Number three is logwood, fusil oil, painkiller, and treacle, and he gives it to the natives, and they die suddenly or kill one another. Then he and the old woman hank them into the dead-house, and sometimes there is an inquest and sometimes there isn't. And when there is, the jury bring in a verdict of consumption complicated with page 21influenza, and add a rider deploring the foolish conduct of the Maoris in getting their clothes wet and sleeping in them. Those bottles up there are schnapps—you notice that they have both got their corks drawn, and when you see a bottle with the cork drawn in this establishment stand off. Just up here is the whisky department. Looks well, doesn't it? Well, stand off that too. Some day, when I can get hold of the key, I'll show you the laboratory where these things are made—it'll interest you. Now where's your glass?"

"Don't be a fool, Bart," said the innkeeper, looking slightly white about the gills. "People who don't know you might think you are speaking the truth."

"Hark at the cunning wretch!" exclaimed Bart, after emptying half a tumblerful of the raw liquid down his throat. "Every word of it is gospel, and he knows it. He's going to get a cemetery of his own some day and collect his dead.

"'He's getting his dead from their lonely graves
And lumping them all together;
There's some of them fools, but more of them knaves,
And he's yarding them all together.
He's yarding them all together, they say,
Whisky and gin and rum,
And there they'll stay, the green and the grey,
Waiting for Kingdom Come.
"'Waiting for Kingdom Come,
Rotten with whisky and rum,
There they'll lie while the world goes by,
Waiting for Kingdom Come.'

"What do you think of me, you, Clifford? Did you ever hear Upmore's hymn to the mother-tincture—the basic salts of the bush pub?—

"'O Mother of all the Spirits, one in a million miles.'

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Fine thing that! And then the dashing chorus—

"'Only a drop to the gallon,

Only a dram to the tun,' etc.

Come on, Clifford, and be sociable. We shall be a damned long time dead."

Clifford shook a smiling negative. "I've a long tramp before me," he replied, "but I shall be back again to-morrow."

Upmore, after a last reluctant look at the bottle, accompanied Clifford to the verandah. "Bart gets very pleasant when he's drunk," he remarked, rubbing his hands and looking furtively at his companion. "Did you notice it?"

"He seems to be in high spirits," said the young man drily.

"Of course, it's only his nonsense about the bottles, just his pleasantry. Did you come straight here from Hawke's Bay?"

Clifford looked intently at the speaker. "Aren't you jumping to conclusions rather?" he asked. "I don't remember saying that I had ever been in Hawke's Bay, and anyway, from the description of the gumfield I have just heard, I should imagine that it is a place where it is best to ask no questions."

"No harm meant," said the innkeeper. "I understood you to say that was where you came from."

"It's all right," said Clifford as he turned away.

The innkeeper stood watching the departing figure of his guest until it became concealed by the winding road. "I wonder—–" he mused half aloud. "It would be an extraordinary piece of good luck if——" He broke off and re-entered the house, pulling thoughtfully at his long moustache.