THOMAS CHARLES BRIDGES
(WRITING AS T.C. BRIDGES)

WINGFIELD'S WHITE ELEPHANT

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RGL e-Book Cover 2018


Ex Libris

Published in The Queenslander, Brisbane, Australia, 18 May 1918

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-11-25
Produced by Keith Emmett and Roy Glashan

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THE roar of the rain on the tin roof was terrifying. It was like the sound of a huge waterfall. Loud as it was beneath and behind it was a deeper and even more alarming sound. It was the voice of the East Arrow, ordinarily a brook that man could jump across, but now a vast brown flood sweeping down the valley in terrible and resistless fury.

For the twentieth time Frank Wingfield got up and looked out of the window. No sign of change. It had been raining now for 24 hours without a break, and still the grey sky lowered overhead, and the sou'-westerly gale drove the torrents against the steaming panes. Down every hillside white veils of foaming water poured to join the ever-growing flood below.

Frank's young face was white and drawn. At last, unable to bear the suspense any longer, he put on oilskins and a sou'- wester and went out. Strong as he was he could hardly face the wind, while the rain lashed his face to that he could hardly breathe. Turning to the left, he passed close under the huge, overshot water-wheel which worked the machinery of the Chapplecombe mine, crossed behind the stamp mill, and struggled along a narrow path leading beside the Chapplecombe leat.

This leat, a narrow, artificial channel cut along the hillside, supplied the water which turned the wheel. It was tapped from a brook on the High Moor four miles away, and on it depended the whole life of the works, and consequently of the mine itself. At present it was filled with a peat-brown, rushing torrent; but Frank took little comfort from this. The whole hillside was seamed and streaked with rivulets. Every bog was a sponge, every spring sprouted.

The stormy afternoon was deepening to dusk as he knocked on the door of an ancient, granite-built farmhouse two miles from his own lonely bungalow. Without a moment's delay the door was opened, and a sweet-looking girl in a pretty print frock stood waiting with eager eyes to greet him.

"You, Frank!" she exclaimed delightedly. "But what a day to be out! You poor thing, you must be drowned. Come in to the fire and get dry."

He came in, walking heavily, like an old man. In the light of the sitting-room Dora Chowne saw his face, lined and weary. "Frank! Oh, Frank, what is the matter?" she demanded. "The leat's gone, my dear," Wingfield answered, dully. "The bank's broke down in a dozen places."

She looked at him, wide-eyed. "But, Frank, you can get it mended."

He shook his head. "It'll cost hundreds, Dora. And I've not the money to do it. It took all I had and more to buy the mine. I'm in debt already, and who's going to lend me more?"

His voice was full of despair, and Dora, gazing at him in dismay, could find no words to comfort him. There were many, her father among them, who had called young Wingfield a fool for buying out old Coker and becoming owner of the Chapplecombe mine. But he knew there was tin there, knew the price of the metal was rising, and had made up his mind that it was the quickest way to fortune and marriage with the girl he loved.

"I'm done, Dora," he said heavily, and dropped into a chair.


ON a fine June night six weeks later Frank Wingfield sat in the small sitting-room of the mine bungalow. The table before him was strewn with papers, and in front of him was a sheet covered with figures.

His face was whiter and thinner than it had been on that spring day of storm, and his eyes were dull with despair. "It's no use," he muttered, as be flung down the pencils. "No one will believe in me. No one will help me. There's nothing for it but to let everything slide and go abroad."

A spasm of pain twisted his face. It meant parting with Dora—and probably parting for good. Dora, he knew, would stick to him, as he to her. But was it fair? Frank was no fool. He was well aware of the difficulties before a man who starts penniless in Canada. It might be years before he was able to make a home.

Sick with misery, he leaned back in his chair, his eyes fixed vacantly on the ceiling. How long he sat like that he did not know. What roused him was the sound from outside. Through the breathless stillness of the warm June night he distinctly heard a stone roll clattering down the steep hillside behind the house.

He lived alone, he had no neighbours, and the time was nearly midnight. It was the last thing likely that any one was coming to call at such an hour. In an instant he was on his feet, had turned out his lamp, and on tiptoe was making for the door.

There was no moon, but the stars were bright, and there was light enough to make out the figure of a man stealing cautiously along the heath-clad hillside.

Frank was utterly puzzled. For the life of him he could not imagine what the intruder was after. Picking up a small electric lamp, he crept out, and, following cautiously, got a second glimpse of the intruder a little way down the hill and close to the mouth of the mine.

There were two holes in the hillside. One was the old working, a narrow, muddy tunnel; the other the new adit, which he himself had had cut because the old one was no longer safe.

Keeping a little above the trespasser, he soon got near enough to see his nocturnal visitor opposite the new adit. The man appeared to make a gesture of surprise. Then he moved on towards the old tunnel, bent down, and seemed to be peering into its mouth.

Frank dropped behind a clump of gorse, and waited silently. There was no breath of wind. The night was so still that he could plainly hear the tinkle of the brook in the valley below. No other sound was audible.

At last the man moved, and vanished into the tunnel mouth. Rising softly to his feet Frank crept towards the mine. He reached it, paused a minute, then, bending his head, for the opening was barely five feet high, entered the old adit.

The floor was greasy mud, and the light of his torch gleamed on water dripping from the reddish rock which formed the roof, and on masses of white fluffy fungus growing on the rotten timber of the props.

The roof was anything but safe, and it gave Frank an uncomfortable thrill to notice on the floor lumps of rock which were evidently quite fresh falls. And he himself was bareheaded, instead of wearing the hard-crowned felt hat without which Cornish Jack never ventures below ground.

Fifty yards in he came to a shaft which cut the floor of the gallery from wall to wall. It was nearly filled to the brim with dull-coloured water, and was spanned by a couple of planks laid side by side. He crossed this and stopped short. Just beyond the roof was down, a new fall within the last few days.

As he stood there something dropped heavily on his head—so heavily that he too dropped, and lay on his face in the mud, stunned and insensible.


A RATTLE of stones was the first thing that he heard on coming to his senses. He stirred, tried to rise, but found that he was tied, hand and foot. The rattle of stones still continued. He looked up and saw a man, just in front, plying a shovel furiously, digging away at the new fall.

The utter lunacy of this performance did more than anything else to restore Frank to the use of his faculties. "You idiot!" he cried, sharply. "Stop it!"

The man turned. He was a gaunt, weather-beaten person of about forty—distinctly an ugly-looking customer.

"Stop it," said Frank again in a louder voice.

"Wot's the matter with you?" growled the other, turning threateningly. "I thought I'd give you your dose."

"Dose, indeed!" retorted Frank. "It's you who will get the dose if you go on digging like that. You'll have the whole roof down on top of us. Can't you see it's absolutely rotten?"

His outburst was so vigorous it seemed to convince the other that something was really amiss. "You're not kidding me?" he demanded.

"You'll soon find whether I'm kidding if you take out about three more shovelfuls."

The man stopped digging and stared heavily at Frank.

"What do you think you're after, anyhow?" went on the latter sarcastically. "There's nothing in there but tin ore, and you won't get enough of that to make your fortune."

"Nothing in there but ore, eh? That's all you knows about it," retorted the other. "There's—" He stopped short, scowling, apparently afraid that he had already said too much. Then with sudden resolution: "Anyways, I'm a-going to have it out, so you can just keep your mouth shut. See?" He turned again to the fall, and once more raised his shovel.

Frank grew desperate. He had now pretty well recovered from the effects of the blow on his head. At all costs he must escape, for he knew the roof was bound to fall in a few moments. He tried to roll away, but found it impossible.

There was a heavy thud, a rattle of stones. For a moment a cloud of dust hid everything. Then he saw the lag leaning against one wall of the tunnel with blood running down his forehead.

"Now will you believe me?" demanded Frank fiercely.

"I got to, I s'pose," answered the man, ruefully, as he wiped the blood away with an unclean handkerchief.

"Look here," said Frank. "If there really is anything in there I can get it out for you. But you'll have to untie me first."

"I thinks I sees myself," retorted the other.

"Well, do as you like, you obstinate fool," answered Frank. "You can't do anything yourself; you don't want help. What do you want?"

The fellow was silent. He had moved back nearer to Frank. "How would you go about it?" he asked presently.

"I'll tell you nothing. I'll make no terms at all until you untie me."

"Ho, and then you'll bunk and send word to the police, eh?"

"You're bigger than me, and, besides, you've cracked my head. You ought to be able to stop me if you think that's what I'm after."

The man paused a few seconds. "Orl right," he said sulkily, and began, to loosen the knots.

A minute later Frank rose stiffly to his feet. "Now come back out of the tunnel," he said. "It's all right," he added, as the other hesitated. "I won't give you up. You have my word on that."

"Straight, guv'nor?"

"Straight. Come to the house, and I daresay we can find some food. You look as if you needed it."

"Food! I could eat an ox."

He did eat nearly a pound of bacon, a loaf of bread, and half a bottle of pickles. He also drank a quart of elder. He looked almost grateful when he had finished his enormous meal.

"Now," said Frank, briefly, "you can either go about your business, or you can tell me what you were after in the mine there."

The man scratched his cropped head ruefully. "Strikes me I ain't got no choice. Well, it's 'alves, guv'nor. Does that go?"

"Depends on what you mean by halves. Am I to understand there's something valuable hidden in the adit?"

"Valuable, you say? Matter of twelve thousand o' the best."

Frank started and stared hard at the other.

"It's the truth, guv'nor. I'm not balmy. See here, you've treated me straight. I'll pitch you the whole yarn." He paused a moment. "Ever heard o' Dick Brunt?" he began.

Frank frowned thoughtfully. "Y-yes, seems to me I have. Wasn't he the man who was sentenced for a big jewel robbery three or four years ago?"

"That's right, guv'nor. And the bloke in question is your 'umble. It was Alleyne's, down to Plymouth below there, as I cracked, and a pretty tidy haul I made. The p'lice was arter me at once, and I couldn't get out o' the country. My father, he used to work up here to Chapplecombe, so I knowed the place was deserted, and I reckoned it were just the crib to hide the swag.

"I stowed it away all right, but, like a fool, I kept a couple o' small stones, meaning to sell 'em for the price of a ticket up to town. I were nabbed with them on me, put up at Exeter 'Sizes, an' sent up for a five years' stretch. Yesterday my time was up, and that's all there is to it."

Frank gazed thoughtfully at Mr. Dick Brunt. "So you are suggesting that we should dig out your spoil and share it up? he remarked.

"That's right, mister."

Frank laughed. "I suppose it doesn't strike you that I, too, should be qualifying for five years' hard?

"No one won't know," said Brunt reassuringly.

"Perhaps not. Still, I hardly think it would work, Mr. Brunt."

"Then you turns me down?" exclaimed Brunt threateningly.

"Sit down and keep quiet," ordered Frank. "Even if I did agree to your preposterous suggestion, what good do you think you'd do, touring the country in those rags, with six thousand pounds' worth of uncut stones in your pocket? You'd go far, wouldn't you?"

Brunt's face fell. "You'd have to give me a change of togs," he muttered.

"No, I wouldn't; but I will on conditions. Sit still," he broke off sharply, "and listen to me. There was a reward offered, wasn't there?"

"Aye. A thousand," answered Brunt sulkily.

"I thought so. Well, here are my terms. I'll get the end of the adit propped, I'll dig the stuff out, and I'll take it back to Alleyne's and claim the reward."

"And wot about me?"

"Don't interrupt. I haven't finished yet. Meantime I'll give you a change of clothes and a couple of pounds. When you've reached your home, wherever that may be, you can send me your address, and I'll forward you five hundred—that is, half the reward. Do you agree?"

"How do I know you'll play straight?" growled Brunt.

"How do I know that the stones are really there?" retorted Frank.

"You got my word fer it."

"And you've got mine that you'll get the cash."

Brunt considered the matter frowningly. "Orl right," he said at last. "I'll trust you. All the same, it's a wicked waste of good money."

"Better than a wicked waste of several years and liberty," returned Frank. "Now you wait here, and I'll find you a change. The further you are from this by daylight the better for you. The chances are that the police are watching you, and if they spot you here it's mighty little of the reward you'll see on of anything else."

"That's right," said Brunt quite humbly.

Twenty minutes later a man in a neat if somewhat worn serge suit and a soft felt hat slipped quietly out of the front door of the bungalow. The smartest policeman would never have taken him for the grimy, muddy wreck whom Frank had encountered in the mine. He went straight away across the moor and disappeared in the darkness.

A few minutes later Frank came out. He was in rough mining kit, and had a strip of plaster on his head. Owing to the low pitch of the roof Brunt's blow had, fortunately, done him little harm, He went straight down to the old adit, and began by carrying in several stout pit props which were stacked outside.

It was broad daylight before he came out again. He sat down upon a boulder, took a small, damp-stained, washleather bag from his pocket, and poured out into the other hand a stream of small, dull-looking, but heavy pebbles. "H'm, they don't look much, but they're evidently the goods," he observed, thoughtfully.

"Five hundred!" he continued. "Three hundred for the leat, a hundred for new machinery, and a hundred for—"

His tired face lit up. "Jove, I'll go and tell Dora," he exclaimed, and sprang to his feet as blithely as a boy.


THE END