Short Stories/Hen and Chicken
HEN AND CHICKEN
They were very hard up, for times were bad in the theatre world, and nobody seemed to want either one or the other. But no one knew it except themselves. They used to look helplessly into each other's eyes every morning, when he would come up from his dingy little home to where she lived, to see if, Micawber-like, anything had turned up.
"Nothing, Chicken?"—his name for her.
"Nothing, Hen!"—her name for him.
And another hopeless day would drag along.
So it went for months.
They had been pals for years—players together all over the world—won together—rejoiced together suffered together—and he had watched over her just like an old hen over her one chicken.
So she called him "Hen-mother," then "Hen" for short.
And now things looked very blue.
In early life he had been at sea, but drifted away into the Australian bush, while his ship lay at Sandridge Pier and a new rush broke out. The rush was way up north on the Palmer; plenty of gold and lots of fever; he got some of both, and it became a question whether to get rich and die or get out. So he "humped his drum" to. the coast. But he had seen gold. One day, camping at noon, he knocked a piece of stone off the cap of a reef which showed color freely.
Gold had come too late! He crawled away along the ghastly track through Maytown to Hell's Gates and on to Cooktown where he stowed away on a ship bound south.
They played together in Australia years afterwards, and he often spent an hour telling her of the old life on the Palmer River. They did well, made money and came back to London, where things prospered for them both, until one awful November day when she said she "felt gray"—and for three months doctors watched her hanging between life and death. Every night on his way to the theatre he would look up into the murky London sky and pray God for her life. And God was very good and listened, and he thanked God from his heart. It was soon after this that things got so bad, and they came across a man they had known in the Colonies and all got to talking gold.
"I know where there's gold," said Hen.
"Up on the Palmer."
"Palmer's abandoned years ago."
"So was Bendigo once."
"How do you know gold's up there?"
"I've seen it."
"But it's all worked out."
"I don't think so."
And they looked over Dr. Jack's latest geological map and found no reef marked where Hen said there was gold.
"There's a fortune up there." Hen put his finger on a spot that lay about twenty-six miles to the southeast of Maytown.
"Why don't you go and get it if you're so sure?"
And the man laughed.
And the "Chicken" sighed.
And the "Hen" folded up the map and put it way.
But a few weeks later, at the "Stores," he and she were buying a few cheap necessaries for some one who was going into the tropics.
"I want a pillow of some sort—anything will do," said Hen.
There were many sorts to choose from, but all seemed very dear, they thought, for money was very scarce. That friend whom they had told had lent Hen enough to get out to the Palmer.
"I want you to have a comfortable pillow, Hen. What does it matter—a few shillings—and it will be so much better. Flock gets into such horrid lumps—and it's so hot and study—horse-hair will keep you cool."
"How much are these horse-hair pillows" asked Hen.
"A guinea, sir."
Hen looked up and drew a quick breath.
"That settles it! Flock—three and six—will do for me."
Chicken turned away and seemed very interested in an advertisement of somebody's soap. When she thought no one noticed, she quickly brushed her cheek with her handkerchief. She had a horse-hair pillow at home.
But Hen-mother had seen. hen they left the "Stores," he chaffed about feather pillows and such luxuries, and told her that a clean sheet of Stringy-bark with a saddle for a pillow made as comfortable a bed as anyone could possibly want in the bush.
He was going back again—after twenty years—to look for gold. It seemed a wild idea, a hopeless sort of scheme, this going out to Australia, but they had talked it over and thrashed it out andseemed best. And so one day he came up in the morning for the last time. It was ten o'clock, and his ship was to sail from the Albert Dock at twelve.
For the first time in twelve years they were parted.
On the ship he commenced a diary and the opening words were: January 18, 1900. The most miserable day of my life.
Weeks after, when he got her first letter, which was written the day he left, he read through dim eyes.
"My Hen-mother—I couldn't see anyone—I just locked my door—and threw myself down on my bed—and buried my face in the pillow—and then I thought of your poor old head on the horrid flock pillow—and my heart broke. . . ."
He had an old photograph of her he always carried, and, sitting in his tent at the Laura River thousands of miles away, he looked at it and kissed the beautiful face it pictured to him.
Time went on. Fortune seemed turning for them both. She had one or two good offers in London and wrote out, "Don't worry, my Hen, about me. If the piece is a success I shall be all right." And it was a success.
And he wrote home to her, "I am in luck. I found the old spot where I camped years ago and broke the stone. The country is wild, unutterably wild and lonely. There is nothing within miles of me. I am absolutely alone. I have worked on the reef, which is a very fine one, and shows gold freely. It is on the top of a spur, and the other day I was fossicking in the gully below when I came across some nice little pieces of gold. But it is lonely—lonely—lonely—beyond words."
Months went by until one day she received a cable from Reuter and her heart stood still. She trembled and hesitated to open it for it was from Australia. What had happened?
She shut herself up and turned the key in the door, then knelt down by the desk where she kept all her letters and murmured, "God grant there is nothing wrong!" Then she opened the envelope and read the cable.
Have cabled you one thousand pounds today. Paris Bank. Well.HEN."
Then she cried.
She didn't know what to do she felt so happy. She had been a bit ill, but all that seemed to vanish and everyone at the theatre that night though she was "Splendid!"
The gully turned out to be a regular bonanza, and for weeks he worked on alone until he had stripped it from end to end. The creek near where he camped ran all year, and from morning till dark he panned and worked the "pay dirt," until there was no more to pan.
At first glance he used to hide the gold in his flock pillow, which had got into hard lumps itself, hardly distinguishable from the nuggets. And as the pile grew and there were no more soft spots for his head, he used to laugh and think, "I wonder if Chicken would rather I kept my pillow now than change it for a horse-hair one?
He didn't know how much gold there was. When the pillow got too full, he dug a hole under his camp and buried it all. Then he went in to Maytown and told the Warden he had found gold on the creek.
There was a rush and the papers heard of it. "Revival of the Palmer," announced one. "Big Find Near Maytown," another.
Hen pegged out a fifty-acre lease of the reef and called it the "Hen and Chicken." Then in a little time he got some gunny bags, filled them with stone from the reef and in each he put another bag full of the gold he had won from the gully and buried in his tent. Chinamen "packed" these bags down to the Laura River for him; from there they were never out of his reach to Cooktown, where he sailed on the same ship with them for Brisbane. Here he opened the big bags and took out the little bags of gold before sending the quartz to Aldershot to be crushed and assayed.
A couple of weeks later the sensation of the evening paper in Brisbane was as follows:
|Two tons of stone from the "Hen and Chicken" reef near Cannibal Creek, on the Palmer Gold Field, were crushed at Aldershot for the phenomenal return of 757 ounces of retorted gold. This reef was taken up by a gentleman from London who, in the early days of the Palmer discovered it while tramping on his way to Cooktown, to which place he was proceeding, almost dying from fever. This was twenty years ago, and the gentleman in question had the good luck recently to rediscover the reef which is in the wildest part of the ranges to the S. E. of Maytown, and which had eluded the notice of prospectors from that day until its recent discovery. Provision has been made to float the "Hen and Chicken" into a company in London, a very high price having been offered for it on the advice of a well-known London expert, who was fortunate enough to be in Cooktown lately on his way to examine some New Guinea property."|
Hen traveled by the first P. & Q. boat that started after he had lodged the gold in the bank and received a draft for it on London payable at ninety days to Chicken. His Palmer gold proved to be as good as any in the world and fetched over four pounds an ounce at the Sydney Mint.
So now, what with the gold itself and the purchase money for the mine, he was rich. As he came over the gangway of the steamer, a rather disreputable-looking digger's "swag" was being hoisted on board. Lashed to this were a pick, a shovel and a pan, with labels on them, "Sydney to London." They were old friends that had "seen him through," and in the heart of the "swag" was a very much worn and clay-stained flock pillow.
"I'll keep the old traps as curios," he said to the third officer, who asked him why on earth he was shipping such a kit as that.
It was midsummer when he reached home and she was living up the river where he found her one glorious evening looking radiantly beautiful and happy. They would neither of them speak—their hearts were too full—and the tears started to their eyes as their hands met. At last he said:
"Chicken, I have brought home something for you—here it is." And he put his hand in his pocket and from an old worn leather case produced a faded photograph of her, round which was wrapped a draft for twelve thousand pounds.
"It helped to stuff my pillow along with the flock."
They both laughed nervously.
He held out the paper. Mechanically she took it and saw what it was, then wanted to speak but no words came. She was choking but, dimly, through the rush of her own feelings saw the tears trickle down his gaunt, bronzed cheeks. Then all got blurred and she sobbed out, her heart clasped close in his arms.
They were drifting in a punt alone on the river. In the moonlight, he had told her all his life since he had left her a year ago and she had told him all hers. He was still a young man as men go, and she in the prime of her beauty and womanhood. He had loved her for years but he had been too poor to talk of anything to her but work.
"What will you get from the "Hen and Chicken?" she asked.
They sat together on the cushions in the middle of the punt. He turned the paddle slightly with which he steered. "All told about a hundred and thirty to a hundred and fifty thousand." He turned, looked into her beautiful eyes in the moonlight and smiled happily. "Half of that's yours, Chicken."
"Yes—we're 'mates'—we've always been 'mates' and out in Australia your 'mate' always has half of everything."
"Oh, that's, Hen. Half a loaf when you haven't anything else—or half—half—" She couldn't think of anything else just then.
"We were 'mates,' dear, when I went away and if we aren't to remain 'mates,' I wish I had never gone. It has been awful—alone in the bush—never seeing you. I have been away a whole year and you have had to fight it out alone when I might have been here to help you."
"But you have helped me—more than you could have done by staying by me."
"Then I am content, at least—"
"What more can you want?"
"Can't you guess, Chicken?" His voice was very tender, very low and carried her thoughts back for years to the night when first she played "Juliet" to his "Romeo," and he murmured to her in the Balcony Scene in a voice that woke an echo in her own heart which had sounded there ever since. But to her he had always ben "Hen-mother." She was like a child; she had told him all her troubles, all her joys; to him her word, her wish was a law, and yet they were 'mates' who had grown necessary to each other, although they had never spoken of love.
"I know—" she said it very tenderly, as she took his hand and nestled a little closer. "I know—you want me to give you a horse-hair pillow in place of your old flock one."
He looked round. Her eyes were infinitely gentle, her head had sunk down on his shoulder and her face was turned up to his in the moonlight.
"Yes—beloved—" He spoke very slowly and drew her closer to him. He could just hear her whisper:
"You shall have mine!"