Knaves of Diamonds/Chapter 8
BEAUTY IN CAMP.
We were walking slowly up and down the promenade deck of a Union liner—I and a grizzled, world-worn "knock-about," who was returning from the Diamond Fields with a very comfortable balance awaiting him at one of the London banks—and, as is not by any means infrequent among male wanderers on shipboard, our conversation had turned on the Superior Sex and its devious ways in relation to our own.
"Ah, women!" said my companion, blowing with pregnant emphasis a long blue stream of cigar smoke from his pursed-up lips; "they are, as you say, the most complicated pieces of unaccountable cussedness that you can find from one end of creation to the other. Why, I remember how one of the prettiest little incarnations of innocence and all-round sweetness that ever swished a petticoat over a pavement scooped a whole mining camp for all it was worth, and did it singlehanded, too, while all the boys were watching her, and dreaming of anything else than what happened."
"That sounds interesting," said I. "Would you mind telling me the story?"
"Not a bit; in fact, I like to tell it, for it does me good. It's a warning to me which I can never rub in hard enough. It happened at a rather out-of-the-way camp over the Free State Border that was worked by about four dozen of as hard cases as you ever saw outside a gaol.
"We called the camp Blue Mud Hole, and it was just about as homeless a spot as a bad-natured man would like to send his worst enemy to do penal servitude for life in. There were about a score of shanties chucked round the holes as if they'd been thrown down by accident, and there was one saloon and general store, kept by a sharp-nosed, red-headed, flinty-souled Scotchman, who was as mean a wretch as ever traded off bad liquor for good money, or filled his slate faster than his customers emptied their glasses.
"It was after we had knocked off work for the day, and were making hay of our earnings in this miserable whiskey-mill on drinks at a shilling a tot, half-crown nap, and similar luxuries, when Monkey Joe, a little chap with a twisted spine and arms like a gorilla, who had been on a three-weeks' burst in Kimberley, rode up to the door and began firing both his pistols at the tin roof to fetch us out.
"'You'll never be an hour older, Monkey, ef you don't shet down sharp on that skyooting, and say why you've hawked this crowd out from its liquors,' said a long, leather-faced Yankee that we called Uncle Sam, because he happened to be the only American in the camp. As he spoke he reached round to the back of his belt, and Joe thought he'd better reel his news off right away, so he put on the most solemn face he could, and said, as though he was announcing the Day of Judgment:
"'Boys, there's a woman coming to the camp, and she'll be here with the mail inside this blessed hour.'
"If he had told us that the British Royal Family were coming to dig diamonds at Blue Mud Hole, he couldn't have given us a bigger facer. With one mind and voice the crowd shouted:
"'Who is she? What's she like?'
"'About as young as a fairly old hoss, and as pretty as an English daisy,' said Joe, with gusto that left no room for doubt, and then he added briskly: 'Now, my nobles, I've had a scorching good time yonder, and, thanks to four queens against a full house last night, I've come back better off than I went. We've just got time to set 'em up once and have a spell at fixing things a bit before she comes, so name your poisons, and we'll drink long life and a good husband to the Daisy of Blue Mud Hole.'
"Joe owned that he'd made that little bit up as he came along, but it chimed in very well, and we drank the toast with a howl that made Sandy Sam's glasses ring again.
"Inside the next half-hour there was one of the funniest scenes going on in that camp that the oldest inhabitant could remember. Men who hadn't fixed their hair for three weeks were pulling it out in combfuls, and letting off language that would sink this ship if I could repeat it. The only two razors in the camp were hunted up and sharpened on boot-tops; and 'Ackney 'Arry, a cockney who had been a barber in Whitechapel, nearly got shot by three different men for doing his best with the tools.
"By the time the stage drove up to the door of the Koh-i-Noor Saloon, as Sandy Sam had the cheek to call his poison-factory, there was as queerly-dressed and sheepish-looking a crowd standing around to welcome the Daisy as you'd have found between Natal and the Congo.
"We'd agreed, after an uneasy sort of discussion, that Monkey Joe, as being the one to bring the news, should have the honour of handing her out and bidding her welcome in the name of the camp. Joe, for all his queer shape, was, or had been, a bit of a gentleman, and we'd made him cook up and repeat five or six times to us as neat a little how-d'ye-do as a duchess could have expected. It missed fire when the time came, and, if there hadn't been a lady present, Joe would have had to fight the crowd before he'd have been forgiven, supposing he'd survived. But the way the Daisy took the few bits he did manage to get out warmed us up so that we forgot all about everything but the slim, straight, grey-clad figure that stood by the coach-wheel, and the sweet face that was looking at us out of a little cloud of brown, shiny hair under a wavy, broad-brimmed hat.
"We waited like so many lackeys for her to speak, and, when she did, her voice seemed to us to come from away back out of the years we had mostly forgotten. It didn't seem to belong to that brown, dry wilderness at all, but to somewhere much nearer what we used to call home. When she spoke she said something like this, as near as I can remember:
"'Thank you so much, gentlemen, for your kindness. Please don't trouble about my box' (two of the boys were just getting out their knives over it), 'but I should be so much obliged if you would tell me where Mr. Draper—Frank Draper his name is—lives in the—the village. I'm his sister, and he wrote to Grahamstown a month ago to tell me to come and keep house for him. I was a governess there, and didn't like it, so I came.'
"Now there had been no Frank Draper in the camp so far as any of us knew, but there had been a good-looking, dissipated, broken-up sort of half-gentleman, half-jockey, that we called Lord Jones, because of the airs he put on, and this chap had been run out of camp and told to keep away for the good of his health a month before for holding five aces at poker when there wasn't a joker in the pack. This might have been her Frank, and it might not.
"Anyhow, we didn't like to risk hurting her feelings on the chance, so, after looking round awkwardly for a minute or so, we tipped the wink to Billy Ballarat, the best liar in the crowd, and he told her, without a twist in his voice, that her lamented brother had been eaten up body and boots by a lion during a hunting spell that he had taken a
"When we saw the Daisy's pretty brown eyes swim over with tears at the news, we felt like blowing holes in Billy; but it didn't seem right to shoot before a lady in trouble, so we passed it over, and started out to console her for all we were worth.
"She said she could cook and sew and make things, and sing to us a bit of an evening, if we liked, and we could pay her what we thought right for her services, and she would trust to our honour as gentlemen to see her right through her difficulty. After that speech the man who dared to look at her except as he'd look at his own mother would have been buried in little pieces.
"Well, we tossed up who should give up his hut to her, but we knew too much about tossing, and gave it up after four rounds. At last she offered to settle it by calling out a lot of Christian names, and taking the hut of the man whose name she hit off first. She came to mine first, and in half-an-hour the cabin was as fit for her to take up her quarters as hard work could make it, and then she shook hands with us all round, and retired for the night.
"Inside an hour a new state of things had started on in the camp. A vigilance committee of three was formed to look after manners and language, and bye-laws were written down to regulate drinking and fights, so that she shouldn't see or hear anything unpleasant.
"The way that girl queened it over us all was a perfect masterpiece. She never put on any airs or graces, or was anything but gentle and civil to everybody; and yet every day that passed strengthened her hold over us. She was a splendid worker, too, and we never had such meals in our lives as she made out of the rough tack that we were able to get for her. And then she fixed up our clothes and looked after our shirts, and tidied our shanties, and altogether made us feel so respectable that we thought of bringing a parson up country and building a church for him.
"At last we got to look upon her so much as the good angel of the camp that we decided to put the diamond safe in her hut, believing that neither man nor spirit would ever think of stealing it out of there.
"I was the one to propose this, and the boys deputed me to ask her to take charge of it for us. After a lot of pretty refusals she said 'Yes,' and we carted it in and delivered it over to her.
"Three nights later she vanished like a ghost into a fog, and when we at last broke the hut open, we found every bag empty but mine, and tied on to that was a slip of paper with the words: 'With Mrs. Frank Draper's compliments to Sober Tim' (that's me), 'in return for his chivalrous but misplaced confidence and the use of his hut.'
"I'm not going to try and tell you what we thought or said about ourselves when we got down to the fact that it was real and not a nightmare. Anyhow, when the language did get loose, it brought along the only thunderstorm we'd had for seven months. And yet, somehow, no one cussed her—funny, wasn't it?
"We never got a stone back, though we hunted far and wide. I whacked up with the boys as far as they'd let me, and we went to work again, and swore off good angels in petticoats for ever—leastways, till we'd made our pile and were getting safe home," concluded Sober Tim, with a yearning glance towards a certain most daintily filled deckchair a few yards away.