"Good bye, old fellow; don't get lost in the bush, or eaten by natives," were the last words of a dozen of my friends as I entered a cab at the door of Long's, where I had been partaking with them of a farewell dinner, and drove away to the Paddington Station.
A cousin of mine, at whose death a considerable fortune would come to me, had left England for Australia some half dozen years before. One letter only had been received by me, dated a few weeks after his arrival, since which no tidings of him had reached England. Advertisements remained unanswered, the researches of the police were in vain, and, as he had never drawn any of the considerable sums which stood to his credit at his bank, the conclusion forced upon his relations was that he must have met with his death at the earlier and more lawless period of the gold fever. In order, however, to make one last effort for his discovery, I determined myself to take a trip to the antipodes, and thus it was that I came to be on my way to the Paddington Station, in order to reach Plymouth by the night-train, and sail the next morning in the Highflyer.
"Now sir, look sharp, train's just a-going to start," cried a bearded porter, shooting me head first into a carriage, and, with a shriek from the engine, away we went.
After arranging my rug and making myself thoroughly comfortable, I had leisure to observe my fellow-traveller, for I had but one. He presented, certainly, a most singular appearance. He must have been about six feet high; but his extreme fatness, heightened by the many coats and wrappers in which he was swathed, made him appear rather less. It was not, however, the huge size of his body that struck me with wonder; it was his head. Had I been walking behind him in the streets, I should have said, "This fellow in front must have a jolly, comely face, with a double chin and a rosy colour." Not a bit of it. It was thin and cadaverous, the eyes deep-set and hungry-looking, and the complexion ghastly pale, relieved alone by the extreme brightness of the red which graced the tip of the nose. So grotesque was the contrast between face and body, that I was unable to keep my eyes off him. He seemed, however, to take no notice of me, being apparently plunged in thought.
At last, by dint of constant staring, I felt myself sinking into a kind of magnetic sleep, and was soon wandering in a maze of dreams, in which the white face with the red nose always played a prominent part. I woke suddenly with a start. The scent of a delicious Havannah regaled my nose - my friend opposite was decidedly offending against the bye-laws. I sat up, and rubbed my eyes.
"No objection to smoking, I hope, sir? I should have asked your permission before I lighted up, but you were so comfortably asleep, that I did not like to rouse you."
"None in the world."
Victorian Australian FictionAustralia was a popular subject for tales of convicts and the gold fields. Authors known for this were:
The cigars were good. We smoked a first, a second, nay a third, in silence. It was not until he had thrown the stump of the last out of the window that he again spoke.
"Going to Plymouth?"
"Going to make any stay?"
"Why no, I sail for Australia in the morning."
"Australia! Ah, I think of going there myself in a week or two."
"On business, I presume, as no one goes there for pleasure."
"Yes, sir, on most important business - to look for my head."
"To look for what?"
"For my head."
To look for his head! Why, I was travelling with a maniac, a wretch who might at any moment assert that the head I carried on my shoulders was his property, and insist upon at once twisting my neck in order to regain it. I looked out of the window. The train was spinning along at a rate of fifty miles an hour. To jump out would have been certain death. How I wished that the revolver which lay snugly at the bottom of my portmanteau were in my pocket loaded to the muzzle!
I suppose that my alarm showed itself in my face; for my companion, after regarding me for some time with an air of amusement, which did not at all tend to allay my fears, remarked:
"Ah! I see you think me mad. So should I, were I in your place. But I can assure you that I am not; and perhaps you will be convinced of it when you have heard my story, which, if you do not want to go to sleep again, I will tell you."
To sleep again! A cold shudder ran through me as I thought how unsuspiciously I had slumbered, my unprotected head exposed to the attack of this lunatic. To humour him, however, I expressed great anxiety to hear his tale, which, as nearly as I can remember, he narrated in the following words:
"But a few months ago there was not a better-looking fat man than myself in Europe. This portly frame supported a head which would have served for that of Apollo, had Apollo suddenly grown stout. To that head I attended with the most scrupulous care. My hair and whiskers were daily oiled, and curled by an eminent professor; not a spot did I allow to make its appearance on my skin. My complexion was, I may venture to say, magnificent. True, I did not, like old Q., sleep with beefsteaks on my cheeks, but I employed every legitimate means, such as air, exercise, and first-rate living, to preserve unimpaired the considerable good looks with which Nature had endowed me. I was a bachelor in easy circumstances, without either trade or profession to hamper my movements, possessing great capacity for enjoyment, and I enjoyed myself accordingly. Towards the latter end of last July, on my return from a stay of some length at Vienna, I found myself at Baden-Baden. I knew no-one in the place; and, being of a sociable disposition, I was only too glad to enter into conversation with my neighbour at the table d'hôte of the Hôtel d'Angleterre. He certainly was not prepossessing in aspect. He was barely five feet high, thin as a skeleton, and possessing a hideous countenance, which, from its ghostly paleness, might have passed for that of a corpse, had it not been for the bright red of the tip of the nose, maintained by copious libations of Burgundy, which he swallowed by the bucketful, without its appearing to produce upon him any intoxicating effect; in short, you may judge of his appearance by looking at the head I now wear, which is, or rather was, his. Despite his ugliness, however, he was a most agreeable companion, and the life and soul of the company. What countryman he might be I was unable to guess, as he was in turn claimed as a compatriot by Germans, French, Russians, English, Italians, Spaniards, in fact by every member of the varied nationalities who thronged the hotel. In all tongues he seemed alike at home; nay, a Portuguese, who had passed a great part of his life in Africa, asserted that he spoke Congoese so fluently, that had his skin been but black, he should have taken him for a negro. Every one, however, admitted that, though decidedly plain, he was a most perfect gentleman, and a man of the most wonderful and varied information. It was in no way surprising, therefore, that I felt myself highly flattered by the marked attention with which he honoured me, and by the deference which he paid to my opinions.
"In the evening the stranger, who called himself Urielli, proposed a walk in the Kursaal, to look at the players. I had never been a gambler; but still, for the sake of amusement, I ventured a few pieces, which soon went into the pockets of the bank. Urielli had remained a silent spectator of the game while I was playing; but after I had lost my last Napoleon, he took the seat I had vacated, and commenced staking largely. His luck was wonderful. In a few minutes he had a perfect pile of gold before him, and I confess that I felt a sort of envy seize upon me as he won time after time; and had I not been completely penniless, I should certainly have again tried my luck. The following day matters took the same course: I played, and lost; he took my seat, and won. On this occasion, however, I had furnished my pockets more amply, and my losses were considerable.
"I left the saal determined not to tempt fortune again, but the next evening found me seated in the same spot with all the ready money I possessed - a large sum - in my pockets. As usual, Urielli stood behind me and looked on. My ill-luck still pursued me. I lost coup after coup, and with my money I lost my temper. I was reduced to about twenty napoleons when Urielli remarked, "I think you had better leave off playing, luck is dead against you."
""What does that matter to you?" said I, angrily, delighted to have an opportunity of venting my spleen. "Perhaps," I added, rudely, "if I had such an ugly head on my shoulders as you I might be as fortunate."
""No doubt, no doubt,” replied he, smiling blandly, "and if you would like to try the experiment, and would just step out with me for a few minutes we can readily exchange."
""Sir," said I, "I am in no humour to be laughed at."
""My dear fellow," he replied, "I would not take such a liberty for the worlds; but I assure you in sober earnest that the whole matter can be arranged in a moment without its causing you the slightest inconvenience. To convince you I will just raise my head and inch or two from my neck. I cannot pull it off here any further, as it might attract too much attention, and be construed as an offence against the conventionalities of society, for which I have the highest respect."
"As he spoke he raised his hand to his head, and to my utter astonishment lifted it a short distance into the air, and then replaced it.
""You see there is no difficulty about it at all; it is a mere trick which I learnt in China; come along, and let us exchange."
"I rose from the table and followed him into the grounds. Seizing his own hair with the left hand and mine with the right, he gave a couple of skilful twists, and before I had time to utter an exclamation, I saw my head smiling at me from his shoulders, and felt his upon mine!
""I hope," said he, "you will treat my property with the greatest care. I have a little business to transact which will occupy me about an hour. Meet me here in that time and we will re-exchange."
"He saluted me politely, and I turned to re-enter the saal; but ere I had gone half a dozen paces a peal of devilish laughter, which made me shudder, burst upon my ears. I turned hastily round, but could see no one. My head and its temporary owner had disappeared among the trees. "Bah!" thought I, "it was but a fancy; my imagination is somewhat disturbed by these strange events." I re-entered the gambling-room, and resumed my seat, which was still vacant. No one seemed to pay any attention to my altered appearance: probably they were too much intent upon the game. I played with astounding success. In half an hour I had broken the bank. Sweeping up the heap of gold and notes which lay on the table before me, I lighted my cigar and strolled out to await the arrival of Urielli. Placidly smoking, I paced to and fro for some time, arranging in my mind, greatly to my own satisfaction, nice little plans for the investment of my winnings. At last, however, when upwards of an hour had elapsed from my leaving the Kursaal, I began to grow alarmed. What could be keeping Urielli? Supposing that some accident had happened to him; that he had broken his leg, or perhaps his neck, and that with my head in his possession. The perspiration stood upon my - I beg pardon, I should have said his - brow at the very thought. Every minute my anxiety increased. It was growing late. I could not possibly return to my hotel disguised as I was. How I cursed the folly that had induced me to make the fatal exchange. What an idiot I looked wandering up and down in thin boots in a heavy dew when every one else was comfortably seated at the supper-table. The thought of supper added the pangs of hunger to my other troubles. My anxiety to reach the gambling saloon had prevented my doing justice to our excellent dinner, and yet if I ventured from the spot even to purchase a biscuit, Urielli might return in my absence. Eleven struck. In another half an hour the whole town would be in bed. I made up my mind in sheer desperation, and hurried down to the hotel as fast as my legs would carry me. In the entrance-hall stood the dignified head-waiter. He received me, not with the bland affability he was in the habit of extending to a guest of some standing, but with the measured politeness which he always displayed towards strangers whose intention to become resident in the establishment was not as yet ascertained.
""Is Mr Urielli at home?"
""No, sir; he went out with Mr Clinton (my own name), and neither of them have as yet returned. But perhaps you are the gentleman for whom he sent this note by a messenger a couple of hours ago? The man said it was to be delivered to a person very much resembling Mr Urielli in the face, and certainly you are so like him, you might pass for his brother."
"I seized the note and tore it open. Its contents were as follows:-
"Dear Clinton, - When you receive this, your head will be with my body miles hence. I really have taken so great a fancy to it that I cannot bring myself to part with it at present. Au revoir. Take care of my nose. Don't allow its colour to fade so long as you are in funds. Yours,URIELLI.
PS - Don't play too much, you won't find my ugly phiz always bring you luck.
"The letter dropped from my hand. The full horror of my situation rushed upon me at once. Here was I utterly metamorphosed. A few hours before I had been handsome, happy, with abundance of means and plenty of friends. Now I was hideous, miserable, without even an acquaintance. True, I had a large sum of money in my pocket, but this would not last for ever, and when it was exhausted where was I to turn, what was I to do? For a moment I thought of telling my story to the waiter, verifying it by the letter, and claiming my name and property. But was it likely that he would believe me? Was it not infinitely more probable, nay certain, that he would regard me as a madman or an impostor, and in either case hand me over to the care of the police? With a heavy heart I quitted the hotel. I took up my abode at an humble inn, and after a sleepless night I rose early, and, without giving myself time to breakfast, I started by the early train for Frankfort. Luckily, I had my passport about me, and was thus able to travel without exciting the suspicion of the authorities.
"Arrived at my journey's end, I supplied myself with a portmanteau, filled it with linen and other necessaries, and taking a conveyance, drove to the Swan. I had not eaten since the preceding day at dinner, and, despite my misfortunes, was ravenous. I ordered breakfast, and while it was preparing I took up a copy of the "Times" that happened to be lying on the table. I turned to the deaths, and there I read:
"On the 8th of May, at Calcutta, Colonel Hawkins, aged 57, deeply lamented.
"Good gracious! and was Hawkins dead? The man who had married the only woman whom I had ever loved, who, I felt sure, had loved me in return, and who had only wedded the liverless colonel under the pressure of the direst parental compulsion? I rose up from the table. My hunger was forgotten. I would fly to her at once. I would lay my fortune at her feet. I would - fool! idiot that I was! Had I any fortune? Was I even myself? Would she know me? Would she not order her domestics to kick me down-stairs as an impudent fortune hunter? My agony was too much for me. I tore out my - no, no, his hair. Would that I could have torn off the horrid head itself, and so ended my troubles for ever. In my frenzy I laughed aloud. There was no one in the room, but close behind me I heard the same demon laughter which had greeted my ears in the gardens at Baden. I uttered an exclamation of horror. The sound seemed to die away in the passage. I rushed to the door like a madman, upsetting waiter, breakfast, everything.
""Which way did he go?" I exclaimed, to the astonished domestic, before he had time to rise from the ground.
""Who go, sir?"
""Mr Urielli, the man with my head."
""There is no gentleman of that name here, sir," said the man, with a perplexed countenance; "and if you would allow me to offer you my advice, sir, it would be to see a doctor; you must certainly be in a state of fever."
"The folly of my conduct struck me at once. I bade the man bring me up another breakfast, and returned to the table. The "Times" still lay open upon it. I took it up again, and read as follows:
"DISTRESSING OCCURRENCE - On Wednesday last, Mr Edward Clinton and some friends went out in a small sailing-boat. Through some mismanagement the boat capsized, and although they were but a few yards from the pier, Mr Clinton and one other gentleman whose name we have not mentioned were drowned. Mr Clinton has left no will, and his large estates descend to a cousin.
"My eyes refused to see anything more. Yes, his estates did descend to a cousin, and that cousin was I; but, alas, never should I enjoy that noble property, never dwell in those ancestral halls the possession of which had been the dream of my youth. I seized a knife, I was about to bury it in my heart, but at that instant I heard the waiter at the door, and was calm. I devoured my breakfast, and when the pangs of hunger were appeased, some hope seemed to revisit my breast. Emily, alas, I must give up, that was too clear; but as to the property, that was another matter. Even if I could not visit it, I might at any rate enjoy the income. I would write to Sharp and Shuffleton, my cousin's lawyers, they knew my handwriting well; I would plead ill health as an excuse for remaining abroad, and request them to undertake the management of the property, and remit the rents to me. No sooner thought than done. In a few days I received an answer.
"Messrs Sharp and Shuffleton were deeply grateful at this mark of my confidence, but private business of a most important nature, which could only be discussed at an interview, rendered it absolutely necessary that they should see me. Would I return to England, or should I prefer one of the partners waiting upon me in Frankfort?
"I replied that I was suddenly called away to India, that I should not be back for a year, that they were to look after my affairs in my absence, and that I would call on them immediately on my return.
"The next day I started on my search for Urielli. By accident I heard that such a person as I described had been seen to go on board the boat at Ostend for England. At once I returned home. For six weeks I have sought him everywhere, but without success. I am going down into Devonshire to take one look at the noble estates which I never shall possess; and then I leave England, determined to return to it no more, unless I bring with me my lost property, of which I fear there is but little hope."
As my companion finished his story the whistle of the engine told that we were approaching Exeter. He gathered together his wraps, drew out his portmanteau from beneath the seat, and with a melancholy "good night" quitted the carriage, and left me alone.
With what delight I saw him go may be imagined. A load seemed taken off my heart; I drew my breath freely again. In my delight I rose and danced in the carriage, I shouted, I sang, I laughed aloud. In fact, I behaved in a manner calculated to inspire any spectator with the idea that I had become suddenly deranged myself. At last, worn out and wearied, I fell into a sound slumber. When I awoke, the train was entering Plymouth.
My voyage to Australia resembled long voyages in general. Much lying in bed and small attendance at meals while in the Channel and Bay of Biscay; large musters on deck, much flirtation, conversation, and music while in the Trades; and quarrels and jealousies without end by the time we had reached the Cape. So that I was anything but displeased when, one glorious evening, we sighted Cape Otway, and on the ensuing morning sailed merrily up the waters of Port Philip, and cast anchor in Hobson's Bay.
The very next day after my arrival I commenced my search. I caused advertisements to be inserted in all the Melbourne and provincial papers, I employed the most skilful detectives, I offered large rewards for any intelligence; all in vain. After spending many weeks in Melbourne, while my emissaries searched all parts of the land, I determined myself to make a tour through the gold-fields, partly to satisfy my curiosity, and partly to make one last effort to come upon the traces of my lost cousin.
My journey occupied me upwards of three months; by the end of which time the funds which I had brought with me from England were almost exhausted, and I was obliged to return to Melbourne to obtain the remittances which I expected to be awaiting me there. Dismounting from the Bendigo coach, and sending my luggage to my hotel, I proceeded straight to the bank, but found it shut, it being Saturday, upon which day all the banks close early. To get through the afternoon I took my way up Collier Street, with the intention of proceeding to the Melbourne cricket-ground, to witness a grand match between the north and south, which was that day coming off.
I had not gone very far when I saw standing at the door of a shop a tall and very fat man, with what must have been at one time a rather handsome head and face, but which certainly then presented an exceedingly ludicrous aspect. I have called him fat, but this should in strictness be confined to his body, as his face, though made on a large scale, was wretchedly thin and pale, the nose red and pimply, the skin blotchy, the eyes watery and red, the hair close cropped, the whiskers and beard short and stubby, as though only of a few days' growth. The contrast presented was so absurd that I could not help staring at him in perhaps rather a rude manner. The stranger noticed it; and stepping out from the doorway, advanced to meet me, with the intention, as I imagined, of reproving my want of manners. I was about to offer an apology for my conduct, when, to my utter astonishment, he grasped me by the hand and exclaimed:
"My dear fellow, I am delighted to meet you. You see my journey to Australia was not in vain: I have, as you perceive, recovered my head."
It was, then, my companion of the railway carriage, and the story he had narrated to me was not the mere ravings of a madman, but an actual fact. My brain whirled, all my senses were in confusion. Here, in Melbourne, in the nineteenth century, in the age of matter-of-fact, when miracles were no longer believed in, and everything partaking of the marvellous had half-a-dozen of the most commonplace explanations, was I standing face to face with a man who had been for months separated from his own head, and had worn that of another. At last I managed to find words to ask him how he had succeeded in discovering the robber.
"It is not worth talking about here," said he; "let us go into the Café Royal, and I will tell you all about it."
We turned up Swanston Street, from that into Burke Street, and were soon seated in Messrs Spiers and Pond's saloons, with a jug of iced punch before us, and fanned into coolness by the delicious breeze from the Punkah. After a deep draught my companion thus began:
"Upon leaving you at Exeter I visited my ancestral domains, and after remaining in the neighbourhood for a day or two, I returned to London, and renewed my inquiries. As they were, however, totally without result, I took a passage in one of Green's ships for this port. On landing, I took up my abode in an hotel in the suburbs, and what was my delight while taking some brandy-and-water at the bar on the night of my arrival, to hear some diggers lately down from the bush speaking of a singular man who was buying gold on the Devil's Creek diggings, and who, from the description, could be none other than Urielli. It is true that they called him Johnson; but the large head and small body, the number of languages he spoke, everything pointed at once to the conclusion that at last I had got my man. The next day found me on my way to the Devil's Creek. After a couple of days' hard travelling I arrived there, and refreshed myself at a small grog-shanty about half-a-mile from the main street of the diggings, which were in full work, and contained a population of some 15,000. Having inquired and ascertained the whereabouts of Urielli's tent, I strolled down just before dusk till I came in sight of it. It stood a little distance behind the main street, with its back to it, having nothing in front of it but the open bush: there seemed, as far as I could see, to be no dog about it; there would, therefore, be little difficulty in approaching unheard. I concealed myself in the bush until it grew perfectly dark, and then I gradually crept up until within a score or two of yards of the tent. Suddenly the tent-door was thrown back, and in the opening stood Urielli: yes, there was my head but a few yards from me. I burned to rush forward and tear it from the shoulders of the ruffian, but by a strong effort I repressed the longing. For upwards of an hour I lay in my hiding-place. I watched him cook and eat his supper, mix his grog, and smoke his pipe; nay, I even saw him nodding over the fire in a dozing state, and was in the utmost alarm lest he should fall with my head amongst the burning logs, and ruin it for ever. At last, however, he rose, knocked the ashes out of his pipe, went into his tent, and closed the canvas behind him. I waited patiently for a considerable time, until I imagined he would be sound asleep, and then, crawling on my hands and knees up to the tent, I gently undid the fastening and peeped in. But who shall describe my delight. On the rude bunk lay the body of Urielli; but my head - my precious head - stood unattached upon the table. My first thought was to remove the abomination I bore upon my shoulders. I pulled; I lugged; I twisted - all in vain. The accursed thing would not stir an inch. At least, I exclaimed at last, enraged by my fruitless efforts, "I will regain my own head; it shall not be left in the possession of this fiend." I stole noiselessly into the tent; I approached the table; I seized my head in one hand, and gave the thing I wore one last convulsive haul with the other. Oh, rapture! it came off in my hand as readily as a lizard's tail. I pitched it into the far corner of the tent, and rushed madly from the spot, adjusting my recovered treasure as I ran. I plunged into the bush. I travelled incessantly all night.
"In the morning I came upon a shepherd. He gave me some tea and damper, and directed me to the road. The coach from the Ovens was just passing as I reached it. I jumped into it, and arrived at Melbourne a few hours ago. The mail steamer leaves this evening. My passage is taken. By the morning I shall have left all danger far behind me.
"But my head! my beautiful head! Ruined! utterly ruined! blotched and spotted! Whenever will it regain the soft skin, the delicate complexion, the ambrosial locks, the silken whiskers of former days! The rascal has broken one of my double teeth, too, and the rest have never been attended to since they were in his possession."
Tears stood in his eyes: sobs choked his utterance. I comforted him to the best of my ability.
"Your voyage home will restore your complexion and remove your pimples and blotches. You can allege a fever as the cause of your short hair and whiskers. You go to claim your fortune and your bride. The troubles you have undergone will give zest to your future joys."
He took comfort, and rose to depart.
"Farewell, my friend," said he; "when you return to England, you will ever be welcomed at Everingham Manor."
He left the room, jumped into a car, and I saw him no more.
The next morning I was early at the bank, but, to my extreme consternation and distress, I found that through some mistake the expected remittance had not arrived. What was I to do? The whole of my available funds amounted to a couple of pounds, and it seemed extremely likely that I should be obliged to write to England for money; so that for the next four months, at the least, I should be entirely penniless. Musing on my melancholy situation, I was pacing moodily down the streets when I received a hearty slap on the shoulder. It was a digger who thus greeted me, whose acquaintance I had made at Ballarat, and to whom I had rendered some trifling service. He noticed my troubled looks, and, in reply to his questions, I explained the awkward position in which I found myself.
"Well, mate," said he, "I am not very flush of ready myself, but I have a few pounds, a good kit, an excellent tent, and plenty of traps and tools. There is a new rush just broken out in the Dandenong ranges. It is scarcely more than a score of miles from Melbourne. If you like to join me as a mate and go up there to try your luck, say the word."
I gladly closed with his offer, wrote and posted my letter, and that very evening, having found a drayman who was taking up some goods to the rush, and who agreed to carry our swags and trays for a trifle, we left Melbourne.
The diggings were pretty rich, and a good many of those at work on them did exceedingly well; but though we worked like galley-slaves, little or no gold fell to our lot. In fact, we only just managed, by the very hardest labour, to keep ourselves from starving. At last my mate came to me one morning, and told me that there was a new rush in Gipp's Land, some thirty miles off; that he meant to go up and look how things were likely to shape, and that I was to remain in the tent and get along as well as I could until his return, which he promised should be as early as possible. I saw him go with a heavy heart. I was but little used to labour, and though I could manage, with great pain, to do the mere pick and shovel work, I knew nothing of tubbing, cradling, and panning out. I was without a farthing in the world; knew no one on the lead, and credit was hard to get. The first day was a blank: I did not obtain a speck of gold, and went supperless to bed. During the whole of the next day I strove, without success, to raise enough to get me a meal. In vain. I returned to my tent, utterly worn out with hunger and fatigue.
I was sitting gloomily before my fire, wishing Australia at the bottom of the sea, and cursing my own folly for ever coming out on such a wild-goose chase, when a delicious odour invaded my nostrils. At once my hunger increased tenfold. I rose, and stepped to the door. The odour evidently came from the supper of my neighbour, whoever he might be; for though the tent had stood there ever since our arrival, I had always imagined it untenanted, as I had never seen any one enter or leave it. Now, however, it was clearly occupied, for, in addition to the scent of the victuals, I could hear a sound as of some one singing in a low tone, or talking to himself. I stood for some time irresolute, debating within myself whether or not to enter, explain my unfortunate position, and ask for a mouthful of food. A dozen times at least I was on the point of re-entering my tent, and each time a fresh waft of odour held me back. At last, gulping down my pride, I strode to the tent, drew back the canvas doorway, and stepped in. Could I believe my eyes? Seated on the bunk at the head of the tent, was Urielli! There could be no doubt of it. The head I knew well; and the lean and shrivelled frame could not be mistaken, after Clinton's description. I stood rooted to the spot with astonishment, uncertain whether to advance or fly. But Urielli nodded to me in a friendly manner, and in a cracked, harsh voice, exclaimed,
"Enter, my dear neighbour, enter. You have come to supper, I suppose. I thought you would. Your larder, I know, is not well replenished."
With this the little man uttered a horrible grating laugh, which set my teeth on edge, like the sharpening of a score of saws. Seeing, however, that I was somewhat indignant at being accosted in such a manner, he hastened to remove the bad impression he had made by saying, in the most polite manner,
"My dear sir, in Australia, we all play at tops and bottoms. One day one is up, and another down. I had heard that you had not been very fortunate in your ventures, and if you will do me the honour of joining me in my simple supper, I shall feel highly flattered."
Loth as I was to eat with one whom in my secret soul I held to be Satan, my hunger overcame my scruples. I took the proffered seat, and was soon deep in the discussion of the best Irish stew I had ever tasted. Again and again I returned to the charge, Urielli smilingly encouraging me the while. At last I could do no more in the eating line, and looked round for something to drink.
"You see," said Urielli, apologetically, "I never drink tea myself; it does not suit me; but I have a jar of punch here, which I brewed from a receipt of my own, and which I flatter myself is not to be surpassed."
He drew out the jar from beneath his bunk as he spoke, and filled me out a pannikin.
"Drink," said he, "and forget your woes."
I raised the pannikin, and drained it to the dregs. Nectar! Nectar, did I say? The gods never drank such. Like lightning the delicious liquor seemed to course through my frame. Weariness forsook my limbs at once. I felt light and joyous. I danced, laughed, shouted aloud, committed a thousand extravagances. Again and again I drank, and wilder and more uproarious became my mirth. Urielli seemed to rejoice at my ecstasies. He drank; he sang: I followed his example; I was in a frenzy of joy; all my fears had vanished; I clasped my host's hand; I slapped him familiarly on the back; I called him a jolly good fellow, and regretted loudly my inability to repay his excellent cheer.
"My dear fellow," said he, "never talk of repayment; I am only too happy in your happiness. But if you are anxious to make me a return, which is within your power, do me the pleasure of playing me a game or two at ecarté. It is an amusement I am very fond of, though I seldom get a chance of indulging in it in this barbarous country."
As he spoke he produced a pack of cards from beneath his pillow. I was an excellent ecarté player, and liked the game exceedingly. No proposal could have been more to my taste.
"With pleasure, with pleasure," I cried, "I regret only that, having no money, our stakes will have to be love."
"No need of that," said Urielli; "no need of that, dear sir. See, this bag contains twenty pounds of gold; I will stake its contents and my head against yours."
In an instant I was sober; the perspiration rolled in huge drops from my forehead.
"Wretch!" I exclaimed; "would you rob me as you robbed poor Clinton?"
"Not so hot, my friend; not so hot. Clinton was a conceited coxcomb, who deserved the lesson I gave him; but you, my dear sir, are a sensible man of business; and this is, after all, a mere business transaction. I want your head for a week or two - say till your remittance arrive from England. If you lose, I will lend you mine, which will serve your purpose for the present well enough. I will also advance you as much money as you may require. By-and-bye you bring me back my head, repay me what I have lent you, with the current interest, and you regain your property: can anything be more simple and straightforward? Besides, we have all this time been proceeding upon the supposition that you must lose; but, after all, you are quite as likely to win as I, and then you will not only get the twenty pounds of gold, but I shall be obliged to ransome my precious pate at any price you choose to put on it, unless, indeed, you prefer keeping such a valueless article."
Écarté is normally a game for two players. Cards rank: King (high), Queen, Jack, Ace, 10, 9, 8, 7. Five cards are dealt to each player, in rounds of two and three at a time. The 11th card is turned up for trump.
After looking at his hand the non-dealer either stands - after which the cards are played - or proposes. If he proposes the dealer may refuse, which is equivalent to standing, or accept. If he accepts then each player discards as many cards as he wishes (dealer may choose not to discard, non-dealer must discard at least one) and cards are dealt from the pack to restore each hand to five. Repeated proposals and acceptances may be made until the pack is exhausted.
Either player holding the king of trumps may show it before the opening lead and so score one point.
The object of the game is to win three or four tricks, counting one point, or all five tricks (vole), counting two. If the original hands are played, and the one who stood fails to take three tricks, his opponent scores two points (for three, four, or five tricks).
Adapted from the Encyclopædia Britannica
"Come on," I cried, "be you devil or man, no one shall say that I who have beaten the best players of the Jockey Club refused a challenge."
We cut, and Urielli won the deal. I had a capital hand and scored two. The next deal I made one, and the next. Everything seemed in my favour. Already I felt the gold in my pockets. I could scarce conceal my exultation. I dealt. Urielli proposed. I refused. With the grin of a fiend he marked the king, and proceeded to win all the tricks. Four - all. My heart seemed to cease from beating; my blood froze in my veins; my eyes were glued upon Urielli as he took the cards. Slowly and carefully he dealt, paused for a moment, then turned the king. With a yell of terror I sprang from my seat and made a rush at the door. Quick as I had been, he was before me.
"What, what!" he cried, "a gentleman and not pay his debts of honour, that will never do. I see I must help myself to the stakes!"
He raised his hand to catch me by the hair, but with all the strength of desperation I grasped him by the throat. He seized me in return. Backwards and forwards we staggered through the tent, upsetting seats, table, bed, crockery-ware. At last, by a superhuman effort, I managed to hurl him on his back and get my knee upon his chest. The candle had been extinguished in the struggle. By the light of the burning logs, however, I could see his eyes starting from their sockets - his face more ghastly white than ever. My nails met in his flesh - the blood gushed from his nose and ears - the death rattle was in his throat, victory, another moment and...
"Help, guard, help! - murder! murder!"
Where was I? What was I about? On the floor of a first-class carriage, grasping with both hands the throat of my terrified travelling companion. I started to my feet, overwhelmed with shame and confusion.
"My dear sir," I cried, "I beg you ten thousand pardons."
"Hang your apologies," roared my companion, in a frenzy of rage, "What do you mean by attempting to assassinate me?"
"My dear sir, I am so utterly dumbfoundered, I do not know what to say. How did it all come about?"
"Come about! why you fell asleep at Slough, and snored so confoundedly ever since, that I could not close my eyes. At last, as no noise I made would waken you, I ventured to touch your shoulder. At once you sprang up like a madman, flung me upon the floor, and attempted to strangle me, and I want to know what the devil you mean by such conduct?"
"My dear sir, allow me to assure you that it was all caused by a dream."
My companion made a gesture of impatience, but sat in silence till we were approaching the next station, and then, as he rose to depart, remarked:
"Let me give you one piece of advice; if you wish to escape the gallows, never fall asleep again in a railway-carriage till you have learned to dream with less violence."
AN OLD CHUM