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قراءة كتاب The Shadow of a Man

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‏اللغة: English
The Shadow of a Man

The Shadow of a Man

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 7

"Greek is great!"

"Ah, now we have it!" cried the storekeeper, who was a stout young man with bulbous eyes, and all the sly glances of the low comedian. "'Tis the voice of the scholard, I heard him explain! He comes from Rugby, Mr. Bethune; hasn't he told you yet? Calls himself an Old Rug—sure it isn't a plaid-shawl, Ives? Oh, you needn't put on side because you can draft Greek from Latin!"

Ives the jackeroo, a weak youth wearing spectacles, had put on nothing but the long-suffering smile with which he was in the habit of receiving the storekeeper's grape-shot. He said no more, however, and a brief but disdainful silence on the part of Bethune made an awkward pause which Rigden broke heroically. Hitherto but little talking had been required of him or of Moya. The aggressive Theodore had been their unwitting friend, and he stood them in better stead than ever when the young men adjourned to smoke on the verandah.

This was the time when the engaged couple would naturally have disappeared; they had duly done so the previous evening; to-night they merely sat apart, out of range of the lamp, and the young men galled them both by never glancing their way. Nothing had been noticed yet; nor indeed was there anything remarkable in their silence after so long a day spent in each other's exclusive society. From time to time, however, they made a little talk to save appearances which were incriminating only in their own minds; and all the time their eyes rested together upon the black stack of logs and corrugated iron which was the store.

Once the storekeeper approached with discreet deliberation.

"I've lost my key of the store, Mr. Rigden; may I borrow yours?"

"It's I who've lost mine, Spicer, so I took yours from your room. No, don't bother about your books to-night; don't go over there again. Look after Mr. Bethune."

He turned to Moya when the youth was gone.

"One lie makes many," he muttered grimly.

There was no reply.

Meanwhile Bethune was in his element, with an audience of two bound to listen to him by the bond of a couple of his best cigars, and with just enough of crude retaliation from the storekeeper to act as a blunt cutlass to Theodore's rapier. The table with the lamp was at the latter's elbow, and the rays fell full upon the long succesful nose and the unwavering mouth of an otherwise rather ordinary legal countenance. There was plenty of animation in the face, however, and enough of the devil to redeem a good deal of the prig. The lamp also made the most of a gleaming shirt-front; for Theodore insisted on dressing ("for my own comfort, purely,") even in the wilderness, where black coats were good enough for the other young men, and where Mora herself wore a high blouse.

"But there's nothing to be actually ashamed of in an illusion or two," the jackeroo was being assured, "especially at your age. I've had them myself, and may have one or two about me still. You only know it when you lose them, and my faith in myself has been rudely shattered. I've shed one thundering big illusion since I've been up here."

The Rugby boy was not following; he had but expressed a sufficiently real regret at not having gone up to Cambridge himself; and he was wondering whether he should regret it the less in future for what this Cambridge man had to say upon the subject. On the whole it did not reconcile him to the university of the bush, and for a little he had a deaf ear for the conversation. A question had been asked and answered ere he recovered the thread.

"Oh, go on," said the storekeeper. "Give the back-blocks a rest, Bethune!"

"I certainly shall, Mr. Spicer," rejoined Theodore, with the least possible emphasis on the prefix, "once I shake their infernal dust from my shoes. Not that I'd mind the dust if there was anything to do in it. Of course this sort of thing's luxury," he had the grace to interject; "in fact, it's far too luxurious for me. One rather likes to rough it when one comes so far. Anything for some excitement, some romance, something one can't get nearer home!"

"Well, you can't get this," said the loyal storekeeper.

"I never was at a loss for moonlight," observed Theodore, "when there happened to be a moon. There are verandahs in Toorak."

Spicer lowered his voice.

"There was a man once shot dead in this one. Bushrangers!"

"When was that?"

"Oh, well, it was before my time."

"Ten years ago?"

"Ten to twenty, I suppose."

"Ten to twenty! Why, my good fellow, there was a blackfellows' camp in Collins Street, twenty years ago! Corrobborees, and all that, where the trams run now."

"I'm hanged if there were," rejoined Spicer warmly. "Not twenty years ago, no, nor yet thirty!"

"Say forty if it makes you happy. It doesn't affect my argument. You don't expect me to bolt out of this verandah because some poor devil painted it red before I was breeched? What shall it profit us that there were bushrangers once upon a time, and blacks before the bushrangers? The point is that they're both about as extinct as the plesiosaurus——"

"Kill whose cat?" interposed the storekeeper in a burst of his peculiar brand of badinage. "He's coming it again, Ives; you'll have another chance of showing off, old travelling-rug!"

"And all you've got to offer one instead," concluded Bethune, "besides the subtleties of your own humour, is a so-called turkey the size of a haystack, that'll ram its beak down your gun-barrel if you wait long enough."

The Rugbeian laughed outright, and Spicer gained time by insulting him while he rummaged his big head for a retort worthy of Bethune; it was worthier of himself when it came.

"You want adventure, do you? I know the place for you, and its within ten miles of where you sit. Blind Man's Block!"

"Reminds one of the Tower," yawned Bethune.

"It'll remind you of your sins if ever you get bushed in it! Ten by ten of abandoned beastliness; not a hoof or a drop between the four fences; only scrub, and scrub, and scrub of the very worst. Mallee and porcupine—porcupine and mallee. But you go and sample it; only don't get too far in from the fence. If you do you may turn up your toes; and you won't be the first or the last to turn 'em up in Blind Man's Block."

"What of?" asked Bethune sceptically.

"Thirst," said Spicer; "thirst and hunger, but chiefly thirst."

"In fenced country?"

"It's ten miles between the fences, and not a drop of water, nor the trace of a track. It's abandoned country, I'm telling you."

"But you could never be more than five miles from a fence; surely you could hit one or other of them and follow it up?"

"Could you?" said the storekeeper. "Well, you try it, and let me know! Try it on horseback, and you'll see what it's like to strike a straight line through mallee and porcupine; and after that, if you're still hard up for an adventure, just you try it on foot."

"Don't you, Theodore," advised Rigden from his chair. "I'm not keen on turning out all hands to look for you, old chap."

"But is the place really as bad as all that?" inquired Moya, following him into the conversation for the look of the thing.

"Worse," said Rigden, and leaned forward, silent. In another moment he had