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The Land of The Lost

Chapter VI

page 36

Chapter VI

Meanwhile Clifford plodded along the dusty road, looking to right and left in search of a camping-ground. To the right he could perceive the track of the creek, indicated by an occasional cabbage tree or flax bush, gradually making in towards the road, and about a mile from the inn he struck across the rough, grey gumland to its banks. A small mound, clear of scrub, determined him to go no farther, and here he proceeded to erect his tent and establish himself and his belongings. The tent, with its fly to protect the roof from the direct beams of the sun, was soon in evidence, presenting in its vivid whiteness a sharp contrast to the monotonous hues of the gumfield. A mass of dry fern fronds for a bed completed the internal fittings.

The fireplace, erected in front of the tent, consisted wholly of a forked stick thrust at an angle into the ground for the purpose of suspending pots and billies over the flames. Having nibbled some cabin-bread and made himself a pannikin of tea by the summary process of throwing some tea-leaves into the boiling billy, the young man picked up his spade, spear, and sack and went doubtfully out into the broiling sunlight.

He had received a good deal of advice from different people, but, as is usual with advice, the difficulty was page 37to apply it. He had been told that the presence of gum was indicated by mounds, which represented the spots where the huge trees once stood; but he found the field thrown into such confusion by the spades of innumerable diggers past and present that all trace of these mounds had, to his untrained eye, long since become extinguished.

He abandoned the search for mounds, and wandered about thrusting his spear into the ground at random. This also led to nothing. Once or twice it did seem that the spear met with opposition from a gritty body, but on these occasions the spade only turned out small pieces of charcoal. After an hour or two the job began to wear a hopeless aspect. It is true there were places which had apparently never been disturbed, but this would probably be because the experienced digger knew by external indications that no gum existed there. On the other hand, the places which had received the digger's attention were presumably quite denuded of what treasure they once contained. But if this were so, then manifestly there was no gum anywhere.

Clifford thrust his spear into the ground, and taking his spade began methodically to turn the soil over to the depth of a foot. A couple of hours of this convinced him that the gum-digger's lot was not entirely a happy one; but still be persevered, accumulating energy as he went on, determined to succeed, even if success necessitated digging backwards to the horizon.

A person who had come up unperceived stood watching the young man with a dry smile, behind which there lurked something of admiration for the tenacity displayed. He was a man of about forty, turning grey, with a pair of twinkling blue eyes. He was in his shirt-page 38sleeves, and stood with his legs wide apart and his hands sunk deep in his pockets.

"You ought to get a good crop, young un," he remarked at length.

Clifford, interrupted in the task of breaking a clod to pieces, looked sheepishly at the new-comer, who met his gaze with a good-humoured nod. "It's not potatoes I'm going to plant," the young man explained, catching some of the other's amusement "I am looking for gum."

"You are the right sort to find it," said the other, "and I am going to show you how to find it right away."

He picked up the young man's spade and led the way among the hillocks of the gumfield, pushing aside the scrub and running his eye from point to point as he moved.

"You see," he said as they went forward, "you've not got to look at the standing bush, but the fallen, and you need to ask yourself whether a tree could have stood at a particular point or not. No tree could have stood where you were digging, and that's why no digger has ever tried it." He was silent awhile, looking keenly at the ground, and moving backwards and forwards a short distance through the thick growth. At last he stood still and thrust the spade into the ground.

"Now," he said, "look about you and tell me what you see."

"There seems to be a little hollow in front of us," said Clifford, "and the ground rises a bit just beyond it."

"Anything else?"

Clifford looked and shook his head,

"Carry your eye in a straight line beyond the mound.

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Do you notice a sort of ridge running along for thirty or forty feet?"

"There does seem to be a line of tea tree higher than the rest," Clifford conceded.

"It's higher because the ground is higher," said his companion. "And the reason for that is as plain as a pikestaff. Where this hole is once stood a kauri; the gale caught him and tore his roots out of the ground, together with a great mass of soil. The mound is all that is left of the roots, and the long ridge represents the barrel."

"I see," said Clifford expectantly; then his face fell. "But it has all been dug over," he added.

"That remains to be seen," said his companion. "You must not forget that besides the barrel there are the branches, and it is never safe to conclude because a place has been dug over that all the gum has been taken out of it. Now here," he continued, pausing at a spot some twenty yards from the mound, "is a place worth trying; it's the sort of spot I should tackle myself, and if you don't find gum somewhere close handy, I'm not the King of the Diggers."

Clifford seized the spade and began eagerly turning over the soil, while the person who had staked his royalty on the issue seated himself to watch operations.

"It's a wonderful place this," he said musingly, a far-away look in his forget-me-not eyes. "Huge trees all around us, and in amongst them the saplings springing up straight and clean, bound on a life of a thousand years' duration. Listen! You can hear the wind coming up from the sea and dying away among the leaves like a spent wave."

Clifford lifted his eyes and looked across the dusty, scrubby landscape and back to the speaker. There page 40was something at once exalted and pleading in the blue eyes looking into his own that set the young man wondering.

A few more turns of the spade, and the gum began to appear in small rusty nuggets until about a dozen pieces, ranging in size from a walnut to a turkey's egg, lay on the ground beside the hole. "I told you!" said the man triumphantly.

"Yes," said Clifford, "of course this gum is yours."

"Keep it," said the other, "for I have plenty. All the gum on all the gumfields is mine, for I alone know where it is. That is why they call Jessamine Olive the King of the Diggers."

"Is that your name?" asked Clifford.

"Yes, but you may call me Jess—all the boys call me Jess. Why should I take your gum, who have all the storehouse of the forest to draw upon? See here." He rose, and taking the spade from Clifford, moved off through the scrub.

Ten yards further on, in a piece of marshy ground, he came to a halt and began looking critically about him. Presently he laughed merrily.

"Yes," he said, "they have found the barrel all right and most of the branches, and they have taken the gum away; but there is one thing they missed. Can you guess what?"

Clifford shook his head.

"They have missed the branch that was torn off by the tree just behind you there."

Clifford smiled expostulation.

The other seemed not to notice, but thrust his spade into the ground, and in a few minutes was throwing out the gum with every lift of the white soil. All the while he kept up a running fire of comments.

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"The trees are thick here. The one behind you is dying of old age and tumbling to pieces from the top downwards; the wind will never blow him over, only scatter him about in dust and rotten flakes. Do you see the shape of the branch? It is as big as an ordinary tree. It seems to have been split up and splintered, and that is why the gum is all along instead of being in pockets. There's a piece for you, now." He lifted out a nugget about ten inches long and half as much in diameter.

Clifford looked on in astonishment. "Is it possible," he asked, "that you can gather all this information from the external appearance of the soil? Why, to me it is the most colourless and monotonous place I ever saw."

Olive ceased digging. "Put it all in your bag," he said. "It is getting late, and the bush is not a place to be in after dark." He gave a little shiver and then laughed.

"I am strangely nervous of dark places," he explained half apologetically; "it's a funny thing in a man, perhaps, but so it is."

"Not at all," said Clifford gently, a light of understanding growing up in his mind. "But surely you don't intend me to keep all this gum?—that's absurd."

"Why not?" asked Olive. "All the gum of the forest is mine for the taking; I can give and I can leave it, and it costs me nothing at all. Let us get outside," he broke off, looking about him with a vague anxiety.

The sun had set, and the brief twilight of northern New Zealand was darkening rapidly into night.

"Where are you camping?" asked Clifford, as they forced a passage through the scrub.

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"On the hillside," said Olive. "I saw your tent from my cabin, and knew you would want me."

"Then you came especially on my account? That was kind of you."

"I like to help beginners," said Jess simply; "the world is not an easy place to live in if we do not help one another."

"It is not," Clifford assented.

"I do not like to be taken advantage of. Sometimes men follow me about with the idea of making capital out of my knowledge, but in the end they have to give it up. I help those I like."

"Shall I come over with you?" Clifford asked when they had reached his tent.

"No," replied Jess;" it is not so dark out here. Strange weakness, isn't it, for a grown man to be afraid of the dark? You can go back to that place again to-morrow; there is more gum there. And keep to the swamps and damp places, you will find it easier. I shall come round to see how you are getting on. Don't forget the King of the Diggers."

Clifford gave him good-night, and watched him, as he went up along the creek in the last gleams of daylight, the stars breaking out above him as he moved. It was not an altogether unaccountable freak of the imagination that he seemed to see in the long, night shadows about the retreating figure the tremendous columns of the vanished forest towering upwards into the dim sky.

In a few minutes the fire for the evening meal was crackling and blazing in the cool night air, and Clifford's first day on the gumfield had ended more successfully than he could have anticipated.