The Diamond (Punshon)
By E. R. PUNSHON
" ONCE a digger, always a digger," say the people of South Africa; and, again, "No man ever leaves the Vaal." But John Robson was very sure that he at least was going to be an exception to that general and well-proved rule.
Never again would he return to the muddy waters of the great river, in the sands of which diamonds lay waiting for the finder; never again would he see the shabby little settlement by the river bank, with its roofs of corrugated iron, its stacks of empty tins, and its piles of derelict bottles; never again would he see the location on the hillside, or the boys working by the waterside. As for his claim, anyone who wanted it could have it.
A strange figure he looked as he trudged across the veld, making for the track along which twice a week travelled the Kimberley coach. His dungaree trousers were torn and ragged, his flannel shirt grey with ancient dirt, his sombrero flapped on his forehead in ruins, his boots he had had to tie with bits of string to keep them on his feet. His hair was long and matted, it was a week since he had shaved, and in the pocket of a wash-leather belt next his skin he bore a diamond worth a clear five thousand pounds or more, such a stone as had not been found on the Vaal diggings within the memory of man.
No one knew, not even his boys. He had seen it and picked it out himself. Not a soul had been near, and he had said not a word to anyone. Not likely. A stone like that one could sell to best advantage in Kimberley itself; the temptation would most likely be too much for the Jew dealers at the diggings, and they would cheat him badly over the business if he showed it to them. Besides, he hated them all so bitterly that he did not want to put such a good bit of business in their way.
The morning after his great discovery he announced publicly that he was chucking the whole thing, and he sold all he possessed—which was little enough—for as much as enabled him to pay his boys their wages and clear off one or two debts he owed. For the claim itself no one would make an offer, and so he had left it for any to take up who liked, and, amid laughter and jeers and many prophecies that he would soon be back again, he started off on his tramp.
The fools! How they had laughed! He could hear still their idiotic guffaws. Well, they would laugh to another tune when the Kimberley papers announced that Mr. John Robson, late of the Vaal diggings, had sold a diamond found on his claim for five thousand pounds, and would shortly be returning to England.
He stood still and looked around cautiously, furtively. No one was in sight. The veld lay still and bare in the heat, as though that moment fresh and raw from the hands of the Creator. He permitted himself a peep at his treasure. An untrained eye would have passed it over, very likely, but, all the same, it was a diamond of the first water, and worth at least a clear five thousand pounds, probably more.
The sight of it refreshed him like food and water, and the touch of it was like cool shade at noon. He laughed out aloud and walked on with renewed strength. Towards midday he came to a lonely farmhouse. They were English people, and, though the native boys looked at him askance, they gave him food, and let him eat it in the shade on the verandah. They did not ask him inside, which, perhaps, is no great wonder, and he did not know that he blamed them much. But in three months' time—— He smiled to himself as, his meal finished, he filled his broken old pipe with some native tobacco and began to smoke. In three months' time it would be Havana cigars.
The farmer came round the corner of the house and looked at him with marked disfavour. It amused Robson to touch his dirty old sombrero and say "sir" to this man, and to speak in the whining tone of the professional tramp. One could do these things when one had in one's belt a diamond worth thousands of pounds.
The farmer was a tall young fellow, neatly dressed, smart-looking, with a ruddy complexion. Robson guessed he had not been out long. Most likely he had sunk his petty capital of a few hundreds or so in this farm, and was expecting great things from it. Robson chuckled to think that he could buy up this young whipper-snapper, with his smart clothes and polished riding-boots, half a dozen times over. Meanwhile he touched his hat to him and called him "sir," and observed that he had been working at the Vaal diggings, and was now on his way to Kimberley.
"Had any luck?" asked the farmer carelessly.
"Not much," answered Robson, hugging his secret knowledge to himself, "It's a trying sort of job."
"It's a poor sort of way of earning a living," said the young farmer severely—"just like going to Monte Carlo on the chance of breaking the bank. I suppose the attraction is, the boys do all the work while you lie in the shade and watch them, and hope they'll bring off the big find they never do."
"No, never," agreed Robson. "But I'm done with it," he added, with strange passion.
"Glad to hear it," said the farmer, who held, for good reason, a poor opinion of the diamond diggers.
He nodded and went off, and Robson watched him go, and hated him, if only for those polished riding-boots of his. Robson did not know that he had ever seen anything more offensive than the way in which those boots shone and twinkled. But very soon he would have shiny boots himself that shone and sparkled in the sun.
Presently he made a start again, and as he went he heard one of the native boys make a jeering remark at which the others laughed. Robson flung so savage a curse at them that they shrank away, and suddenly the young farmer appeared again.
"Come, none of that sort of talk here, my man!" he said. "You be off!"
Robson eyed him viciously, but then turned and shambled off without speaking. The other's attitude had not invited discussion, and then why should he try to assert himself when he knew—he knew well—what was in the pocket of his wash-leather belt?
He burst into sudden laughter of pure joy as he went, and thought of his hidden fortune, and when they heard him laughing like that, the native boys gave up the plan they had half formed of setting the dogs after him as soon as the master's back was turned. For plainly this ragged wanderer was mad, and therefore to be venerated and served in all ways possible, on account of the powerful and unknown spirit that had taken possession of him.
Across the veld John Robson strode briskly on his way, and his thoughts were busy with his past and with his future. Destiny was a strange thing. It had made him its football all his life, and now had flung him a princely gift as one tosses a bare bone to a dog. He thought of his schoolboy days, the old classroom, the playing fields, the ancient elms over which one day, in a cricket match, he had driven a ball for six with a mighty drive that was talked of all the rest of the term. He wondered what had happened to the rest of the chaps. Some would be dead, he supposed, and some here and some there, and most would be snug citizens, going daily to their offices and returning at night to their comfortable villas situated in select residential districts, and he—well, he was here in rags, trudging across the veld with a fortune in his pocket.
Life was a strange business.
He remembered so well his first landing at Cape Town. He had had money in his pocket then, and he had enjoyed himself, and when the money came to an end, he had drifted from one thing to another, till he came at last to the muddy waters of the Vaal to grub for diamonds.
And now he was leaving them with a fortune in his hand, and for pure joy he laughed out loud, alone there on the veld—a lone laughing figure in the midst of that great stretch of sun-baked desolation.
He walked on, and his thoughts turned to London. He would be there in three months, and as he walked he made, as it were, a song to himself of all the old familiar names—Piccadilly and the Strand, Pall Mall and Leicester Square—he chanted them all to himself as a conqueror might chant the names of the victories he won in his youth. And he promised himself that, on the third monthly anniversary of the day of his great find, he would walk into the Savoy and order the best dinner there that money could buy.
Towards sundown he came in sight of the place where the Kimberley coach stopped to change mules, and there, so well had he timed himself, was the coach in the distance, swinging down the road.
The halting-place was known as Watson's, and was a trading store and canteen belonging to a big Afrikander named Watson, and suspected of having in his veins a strong dash of native blood. His huts were of mud with thatched roofs, and only one had a verandah. That was the largest hut, of which one end formed the canteen—the fittings of which consisted chiefly of packing-cases—and the other end the store, where tins of "bully" salmon and milk rusted on the walls, meal-bags leaked on the floor, and sides of bacon sweated through their muslin covers. Behind were the mule stables, and on one hand was the dining hut, where food for the approaching travellers was spread out in uninviting array. But then, as Mr. Watson remarked, the food didn't matter much, for no one ever wanted to eat, on getting off the coach—all that was wanted was drink and plenty of it.
The coach drove up, the passengers descended to stretch their limbs, to look at as much of the food ready for them as was visible under the flies, and then to turn shuddering into the canteen to demand drink. They were nearly ready to start again, and the driver was casting a professional eye over his new team, when Robson came up.
"Hallo!" he said. "Got any room? I'm bound for Kimberley."
"You. are, are you?" said the driver coolly, and climbed into his seat. "Come from the diamond diggings, eh?"
"You just about look it," said the driver thoughtfully—"you do that. I know your sort," he said, and expectorated with vigour. "You get sick of the game once in a while, and you think you'll do some honest work for a change, instead of lying about half drunk, watching your boys and hoping they will make a big find, which they never do. So off you go to town, and when you find you've got to work there, back you go to the river. Once a digger, always a digger."
"Yes, I've heard that, too," agreed one of the passengers. "They always say that no man ever leaves the Vaal."
"Well, I have," retorted Robson, smiling with a secret joy as his hand strayed towards the belt where he kept his hidden treasure, "and I want to get to Kimberley. Have you room?"
"Reckon there's room all right, outside," said the driver, with some reluctance, "if you can pay your fare," he added.
Robson hesitated. In his excitement and his consciousness of wealth, this was a difficulty he had never thought of, and, though he carried a fortune in his belt, he had not so much as one "ticky" in his pockets.
'I—I——" he stammered, taken aback, and then he laughed, this obstacle seemed so foolish. "I'll pay you when I get to Kimberley," he said.
"Thanks," retorted the driver, misunderstanding the other's laugh. "I've been had that way before, and I'm not taking any more, thanks all the same."
Before Robson realised his purpose, he whipped up his mules. The coach, swaying and rattling, started off, bumping down the rough road. One or two of the passengers looked back at him curiously, one or two laughed, most of them took no notice. A spasm of rage and hatred took him. He had a mind to run after them, to force them to stop, to show them his great diamond, that would turn in a moment their indifference, their contempt, to envious admiration. He restrained himself abruptly. They were not worthy to see it. He would let them drive on, and they should only find out through the papers what folly they had been guilty of. He laughed aloud in scorn of them, and for joy of the secret that he held so closely. A voice near by said lazily—
"Glad you're amused, mister."
He turned and saw a big, bearded, dark-complexioned man leaning against the door-post of the canteen. It was Watson, the owner of the place. He was watching Robson with a kind of good-natured contempt, and, jerking his head backwards, he said—
"Come on and have a drink."
Robson followed him into the canteen. The air was heavy with the odour of stale spirits, the floor of beaten earth was a litter of burnt matches and cigarette ends. Watson poured out some whisky, and Robson drank it thirstily.
"That's good," he said. "When's the next coach due?"
"Day after to-morrow," answered Watson. He added presently: "They won't take you if you can't pay your fare."
"They will fast enough if I want them to," retorted Robson.
The hotel-keeper took no notice of what he thought a mere idle boast.
"Gimme another drink," said Robson.
The other looked at him and yawned, and then laughed.
"By gum, you've a cheek!" he said. "Let's see the colour of your money."
Only by an effort did Robson resist his impulse to slam down his belt on the top of the packing-case that served for a bar counter. The sight of what it held would strike this grinning hotel-keeper as with lightning. But no, he would keep his secret still. No one should know till he reached Kimberley. These fools he hated so should only find out presently what it was they had missed. Without a word he turned and shambled out into the open, and sat down in the shade by the side of the hut.
After a time Watson followed, and made a remark or two the other hardly answered. He slept that night in the mule stable. Strange accommodation, he thought to himself—as, with his secret and furtive joy, he felt again his hidden treasure—for a man worth some thousands of pounds. Here, in this cursed country, it was a heap of straw in a mule stable. But once back in London it would be a room at the Savoy.
He hung about all next day, waiting for the coach. If necessary, he had made up his mind to show his treasure so as to secure a seat. But this hotel-keeper fellow—half-bred nigger that he was—should know nothing, nothing at all; that should be his punishment for his impudent indifference.
That night he again slept in the mule stable. He had managed to get a little food, thrown to him by Watson, as one throws scraps to a dog, or shared with the Kaffir cook-boy. Watson had no special objection to his hanging about the place, nor did he grudge him the bit of food he obtained. He was always someone to talk to. Even the mere presence of another white man was a change and break in the eternal monotony of the veld. Besides, to send him off would have needed an effort, and effort was the one thing of which Watson was constitutionally incapable. And then, after all, the fellow did no harm, and was useful sometimes to help in odd jobs.
As the second day drew on, Robson's agitation became extreme. His mind was full of Kimberley and the lighted streets, of good food and clean living, of the well-dressed, bustling crowds, and the respectful excitement he would cause when at last he flashed upon a deferential world the great diamond he kept hidden so securely.
Watson watched his excitement with increasing amusement. The hotel-keeper was by no means an ill-natured man, but some demon of mischief entered into his brain that day, and an hour before the coach was due he offered Robson a drink. Robson, his throat dry and parched, accepted with avidity, and Watson gave him another, and then another that was almost raw spirit.
When the coach arrived, Robson was snoring dead drunk on a heap of straw in the mule stable, where Watson, who had forgotten all about him, found him the next morning.
"Hey, you, you are a beaut!" he said, stirring the sleeping man with his foot.
Robson grunted and sat up. His head ached abominably, he felt really ill, sick, and dazed. It was some time before he realised that he had missed the coach, and when he did he felt too bad to say much.
"When's the next one?" he asked.
"You're a sticker, ain't you?" he said. "There's three a week—the next on Tuesday."
But he did not tell him that the Tuesday coach came in the morning, not in the late afternoon, as the other two did.
There was nothing for it but to wait, for he knew he was not strong enough to make the journey on foot; and till Tuesday he hung about the place, doing an occasional odd job, getting in return food enough to keep him alive, and sometimes a drink. On the Tuesday morning one of the goats was missing, and Watson asked him to go and look for it.
"It'll have strayed over behind the kopje there," he said, "and I'd hate the hyenas to get it, if they haven't already. Don't be long."
Robson, who was growing very excited again, was willing enough to undertake the little errand. It would help to pass the interval of waiting, and the hotel-keeper could not do less on his return than stand a drink. Robson felt no desire for food, but it was as though a fire consumed him within. More than once, to get fresh drink, he had been tempted to show his hidden treasure, and only his hatred of Watson and fierce determination to keep his secret still had prevented him from doing so. He was a little afraid he was in for a touch of fever, for at times he felt quite light-headed. But that would be all right once he got to Kimberley, and could have proper food and lodging and attention.
So he went off, with one of the native boys to help him, and they returned with the missing animal about noon, to learn that the coach had come and gone during their absence.
"I told you not to be long," observed Watson indifferently.
The other made no reply. He felt too overwhelmed. It had come into his mind suddenly that he would never get to Kimberley, that somehow or another he would always be prevented. Watson said lazily:
"I'm glad you found that goat. Come and have a drink. What are you in such an all-fired hurry to get to Kimberley for, anyway?"
"That's my affair," said the other, greedily emptying his glass.
"Secret, eh?" said Watson, amused. "Will you tell me for another go of whisky?"
"No," answered Robson, with flaming eyes. "No, not if telling you were the only way to save you from slow death!"
The hotel-keeper, more amused than ever, laughed outright. He thought it very comical to see how this outcast vagabond drew himself up, with flashing eyes and head erect, as though he were any man's equal.
"You shall have your drink, anyway," he said, pouring it out, "and next time I'll see you are around when the coach comes; but I don't say they'll take you on if you can't pay your fare."
"If I held out my hand like that," said Robson, with a sweeping gesture, "the driver would turn all the other passengers out to make room for me!"
He turned and strode out of the place, and Watson looked after him smilingly.
"Crazed, poor brute!" he said to himself. And later on he said to him: "If you like to give up your Kimberley notion, you can stay around here. You can build a hut for yourself, and I dare say I can always make you useful enough to pay your keep."
"You—you make me useful!" cried Robson, flaming into sudden anger. "You dare suggest my staying on in this hole, that isn't fit for a mangy dog or a blind jackal! You make me useful, you pay my keep! This place may be good enough for your Kaffir boys and for you, who aren't much different; but for me—me——"
It was the reference to his supposed strain of native blood that made Watson so angry, otherwise what he took for the other's idle boasting would only have amused him. But now he went very pale beneath his tan, and said angrily—
"All right. If I ain't good enough for you, you clear out as soon as you like!"
And he gave orders to the boys to turn Robson off the place, and to let him have nothing that he did not pay for.
The boys did not take the orders very seriously, and. they made no attempt to interfere with Robson in the mule stable, to which he had retired. They understood it only meant that the two white men had quarrelled, and they supposed that soon they would be friends again, and most likely getting drunk together.
But Robson stayed sulkily in the stable. One reason for this was that his legs felt queer, and that he had some difficulty in walking. Besides, he was determined to ask for nothing, to accept nothing from the hotel-keeper. His revenge would be all the greater when the coach arrived, and he would display his secret treasure, and depart for Kimberley in a blaze of glory, leaving a crushed and humbled Watson to regret vainly and for ever his treatment of the stranger so wealthy beneath his rags. Watson almost forgot him next day, and when one of the boys told him that the strange white man was in the mule stable, lying on a heap of straw, he said carelessly—
"Well, let him stop there. If he wants anything, he can come out and ask for it."
But John Robson, potential rich man, owner of the biggest diamond South Africa had produced for ever so long, was not going to ask for anything from the man who had insulted him.
He hugged his wrath more than did Watson, who by the time the next coach arrived had quite forgotten it.
"Bill," he said to the driver, "there's a poor, half-crazed fool been hanging round here the last few days, dead set on getting to Kimberley. He can't pay his fare, but how would it be if you gave him a lift? You ain't such a big load to-day."
"What's he want to go to Kimberley for?" asked the driver.
"Oh, just some fool-crazed notion he's got," answered the hotel-keeper. "Anyhow, he can go into hospital there—it's the only place he's fit for."
"Right O, I'll take him along," said the driver. "Nothing infectious, I suppose?"
"Oh, no," answered Watson. "Come and have a drink, and I'll send one of the boys to rout him out."
They went into the canteen together, but the boy they had sent to the mule stable came back quickly, looking very scared.
"He's dead," he said, "dead, for sure!"
Watson swore comprehensively. The driver suggested they had better go and have a look for themselves. They did so, and found the boy had spoken truly. Excitement, lack of food, too much bad whisky, and general weakness, had had their effect, and John Robson lay dead on the straw, a happy smile on his face, for he had died dreaming that he was in the act of alighting at the Savoy, with deferential waiters bowing before him, and the manager smiling a welcome in the background.
"Wonder what made him pop off that way?" said Watson, uneasily conscious of his order that the dead man was to have nothing that he did not pay for.
He was quite voluble in his explanations, that did not interest the driver in the least; but he promised to inform the Mounted Police, to save Watson the trouble of sending off a boy to notify them.
When the coach had gone, Watson went back into the stable. The body would have to be removed, and it had occurred to him that he might as well go through the pockets and see if there was anything in them. As he expected, there was nothing at all; but he noticed the belt round the dead man's waist, and he took it off. It seemed a good one, and might be useful, and would be as well with him as with the police. He flung it down, and went out to get two of the boys to remove the body, and when he came back he was just in time to see one of the mules busy eating the belt. The animal had had two great mouthfuls out of the middle already, and quite ruined it. Watson cursed a little and hit the mule, and flung the belt away. Later a prowling hyena found it and ate it. And now, whether the Kimberley coach is drawn by a mule with a five-thousand-pound diamond inside it, or whether that diamond, is in the interior of one of the hyenas Watson can hear howling by night, is a problem that troubles neither him nor anyone else, since no one knows anything about it.
Copyright, 1917, by E. R. Punshon, in the United States of America