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Title: The Lesson The Ants Taught
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1201271h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: February 2012
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The Lesson The Ants Taught

by

Fred M White


ILLUSTRATED BY CHARLES CROMBIE


Published in The Windsor Magazine, Vol. XLV, Dec 1916, pp 101-107


CROSFIELD looked across the camp fire at his friend Norton with the light of battle gleaming in his eyes. They were away up there on the veldt, not a hundred miles from Kimberley, and the fruits of three years' unremitting toil lay in the hollow of Crosfield's hand. To the untutored eye they represented no more than half a dozen round stones like big marbles, but an expert would have had no difficulty in recognising the fact that those pebbles were diamonds of the purest quality—six bits of glorified glass that represented a king's ransom.

To all practical purposes these were the absolute property of the partners, though lawyers and people of that kind learned in the mysteries and devious ways of legislation might have held a contrary opinion. At any rate, there they were, and between them they represented a fortune of something on the outside of a hundred thousand pounds. They represented something more than that—they stood for the entire worldly wealth of those men, they stood for three years' unremitting toil and danger, thirty-six sweating, blistering months endured under a tropical sun and accompanied by every hardship and danger that is known in the vocabulary of the pioneer. Those dull stones meant peace and happiness in England, home and friends, and everything that those two had set out to win for themselves. And yet there was much to be done before Crosfield and Norton found themselves on the high seas in search of English woods and meadows and all that life holds most dear. Hence the hard glitter in the eyes of the two men, hence the fact that they were discussing the future in whispers with the air of conspirators against the law.

"What do you suppose they are worth?" Norton asked.

"Well, there ought to be fifty thousand pounds for us each here," Crosfield replied; "and, by every moral law, these stones belong to us."

"It isn't moral law we've got against us," Norton said dryly. "You may depend upon it that that rascal Blatter won't leave a stone unturned to get those diamonds back. He knows by this time that they are in our possession—in fact, he told me so last night. When D'Jin came here and sold us our own stones, we ought to have kept him and taken him down to Cape Town with us. It is fatal to have paid him before we had booked our passages."

"What's the boy been up to?" Crosfield asked.

"Well, you paid him fifty pounds for smuggling those stones through, didn't you— fifty pounds to a greasy nigger boy who has never previously seen a gold coin in his life? And what does D'Jin do? Bought himself a couple of wives and a bunch of cattle, and set up as a local magnate. Of course, Blatter was on him like a shot. He guessed at once that D'Jin had been handling diamonds, and he laid out for that conceited nigger. As far as I could gather, D'Jin gave the whole show away, and, when you were out after springbok this morning, Blatter came over here, foaming with rage, and asked for his stones back."

"They are our stones right enough," Crosfield said, "and if D'Jin did find them, they were on our land."

"Yes, but Blatter is prepared to swear that when he took this holding off our hands, we sold him the patch of blue ground as well. And he has got some sort of a map to prove his claim, and he is prepared to swear that the blue ground that runs from Hodder's Spruit to Hagfontein is part of his purchase. He says he bought all the land that Jan van Beers trekked in 1874, and that slim* Dutchman is ready to back him up. There's only one thing to be done."

[* slim (Afrikaans) - bad, nasty, worthless. ]

Crosfield's lips tightened ominously. They had sunk every penny they had there, and it was only quite lately that they had found traces of diamonds on that hitherto despised patch of ground of theirs; and this corner of the property they had reserved when, sick at heart and in desperate need of money, they had sold their holding to the wily Karl Blatter. But that slim German had known what he was doing, and he had laid his plans accordingly.

"So that's the game, is it?" Crosfield said, when he had heard everything his partner had to say. "Old man, I am not going to fight that fat blackguard in the local courts, and I am not going to give up those stones, either. They are as much my property and yours as the rifle that I hold in my hand. If we made this a legal matter, I can see that we are done. We shall never be able to stand up before all those perjured witnesses, and, so far as I can see, we have got everything in the way of diamonds that the blue clay yonder is likely to yield us. I can see the little place I'm after at home in my mind's eye as I sit here now, and you've got a girl over yonder, and I've got a girl yonder, and—well, I needn't say any more."

Crosfield lighted his pipe and set about preparing the simple mid-day meal. But there was danger ahead, and he knew it perfectly well; but the knowledge only gave zest to the adventure. And how near that danger was, transpired a little later in the afternoon, when the adventurers, sitting round their camp fire, were intruded on by a stranger, who came across the river riding a useful-looking horse, and who dismounted without further ceremony.

He was a stranger to the partners, a hard, lean, muscular man with grim jaw and penetrating grey eyes. From the way he rode, and from the fashion in which he carried himself, the partners rightly judged that the stranger had seen service.

"Good evening," he said. "Maybe you're not knowing who I am? But me name's Commissioner Costigan. An' I believe I am talking to Mr. Crosfield and his partner?"

"You've hit it," Crosfield said. "I don't remember ever having had the pleasure of seeing Captain Costigan before, but I am pleased to meet. 'The Goat' after all these years."

The stranger threw back his head and laughed heartily.

"Bedad," he said, "an' ye have the advantage of me! I haven't heard that name since I was at Eton, twenty-odd years ago. And, now, shure I know you both. Wasn't I in the boat with you the year we won that Ladies' Plate at Henley? And if me eyes don't deceive me, that's Nobby Norton? Well, well, it's a queer old world we live in. And when I was faggin' for you both all those years ago, it's little I thought I should ever be out here, chasing niggers and hunting round after Old Etonians who had so far forgotten themselves as to be robbing a hard-working German—bad luck to him!—of the fruits of his toil."

Five minutes later the old school-fellows were sitting round the camp fire, exchanging reminiscences. Then, as the shadows deepened, the merry twinkle died out of the Irishman's eyes, and he grew serious.

"Now, listen here, boys," he said. "I rode over to-day, knowing that you were clean and decent Englishmen, to see if I couldn't put this matter right. I suppose you know that I could have brought half a dozen troopers, and have had you locked up. Now, I know that one of you has got those diamonds on him, and, for your own sake, I am going to ask you to hand them over."

"We are not denying it," Norton said quietly; "but those stones belong to us. You know that Blatter is a blackguard, and that we have been swindled."

"An' who was sayin' you were not?" Costigan demanded. "But I must report the matter, and once you are in Cape Colony you will have no 'Goat' to look after you. And, mark my words, you will live to be sorry for it."

"We are going to risk all that," Crosfield said.

"Very well, me boy, then I won't say any more. Shure, there's no finer detective force in the world than the I.D.B. Preventative Force at Cape Town. Do you mind Jimmy Forsyth, who was in Caxton's House? Yes, I see you do. And a cunninger young devil never got out of an imposition. Well, he took a hand in the sport, and to-day he's serving ten years' sentence on the breakwater at Cape Town. I know it's hard, but it will be harder still if you try to run what you've got in your pockets through the harbour at Cape Town."

With which Costigan filled his pipe again and began to talk about other things. It was getting late now—so late that Costigan accepted an invitation to share the evening meal and a blanket for the night by the camp fire. And, as he talked on, Crosfield, opposite him, grew more and more quiet and thoughtful, as if he were debating some heavy problem in his mind. He sat there gazing into the fire, until presently Norton, who knew his every mood and fancy, saw a sudden gleam in his eyes and the faint whimsical smile that trembled on his lips.

"Costigan," he said suddenly, "you were always a good sportsman. Did you ever shoot an elephant?"

"Bedad, I never did," Costigan replied.

"We've spotted two," Crosfield said. "There's a big rogue of a chap that's done a lot of damage here. Now, I've got a couple of elephant guns here and a box of shells, and we might have a cut at him. Are you game?"

"Faith, I never laid hands on an elephant except in kindness," Costigan said solemnly; "but I don't mind acting as an umpire. So if you'll put me in a comfortable place with a pair of good glasses, it's happy I'll be to oblige you."

"That's all right, then," Crosfield said. "We'll show you a bit of sport, and then we'll all go down country together."

"It's leavin' here you are to-morrow?" Costigan asked.

"What's the good of staying?" Crosfield retorted. "We've sold our property, and the sooner I'm back in England, the better I'll be pleased."

"It's no good, old fellow," the Irishman said solemnly. "Blatter has sold his rights in your late property to the Diamond Fields Amalgamated, and they'll have your gore, if it costs them a million. There's too much of the rich red blood of Israel in that clan for you chaps to butt up against. But there— I've warned you enough already!"

"We're going through with it, all the same," Crosfield said doggedly. "Give me those cartridges, Norton."

Norton fished out a box of shells and the two elephant guns, and for the next quarter of an hour or so Crosfield was busy with a file and a small vice, which he attached to a broken bench. He was making dum-dum bullets, he explained; he was going to run no risks, so far as that rogue elephant was concerned, and, besides, he was just a little doubtful as to the driving power behind those German-made explosive bullets.

"They're all right, as a rule," Crosfield explained, "but occasionally a shell fails to explode, and you can't afford that sort of melodrama when you are fooling with an African elephant."

Costigan replied that it was all the same to him, so long as he was watching the sport from a safe distance through a pair of glasses, and with that the camp fire was made up for the night, and the three men rolled themselves up in their blankets. Very soon Costigan's regular breathing testified of the fact that he was asleep. Norton turned over and edged himself a little nearer to the side of his companion.

"What's the little game, old man?" he whispered.

"You leave that to me," Crosfield replied. "We are going to the Cape, and there were going to stay as long as the authorities care to detain us. But they won't find those stones, because they will be hidden where no man on earth will ever find them, and you can gamble on that."

Not another word would Crosfield say. They breakfasted leisurely enough the following morning, and, everything being ready, proceeded to call the handy Kaffir boy D'Jin into their counsel.

News had come in that the big rogue had raided a mealie field by the side of the waterhole during the night, and he was now resting in a patch of scrub half a mile or so on the other side of the stream. This being so, it would be no great matter to rouse the big beast and drive him in the direction of the scrub.

"All right," Crosfield said. "You can go and work the beast round to the scrub, and dig a pit in front. Do you hear? If anything goes, wrong, he will flounder into it, and we shall have him safe. Directly you get a move on, one of you boys had better come back and look after the ponies. They'll be on top of the knoll yonder. Off you go."

Crosfield led the way, closely followed by Norton, whom he posted on the left, whilst he himself went forward, being the better shot of the two, and took up his position upon the far bank of the stream opposite a belt of deep, swampy ground that bordered the patch of scrub in which the Kaffir boys declared the elephant was lying.

"Now% you stay here," Crosfield directed, "and wait. If he does break this way, you'll be able to stop him, though it's long odds that he will come straight across the brush directly he catches sight of me. I suppose Costigan's got a good view from the knoll yonder."

"He ought to be able to see everything, and there is no better pair of glasses in the colony than mine."

Crosfield crept on until he had come to the spot where he intended to take up his stand. Already on the far side of the swamp the Kaffir boys were moving in the scrub. The noise of their cries came down the wind, and Crosfield smiled grimly as he heard them. Then the patch of reeds opposite him seemed to move bodily, and a moment later the big elephant loomed in sight. He was obviously alarmed and uneasy, for he was trumpeting wildly as he came blundering towards the bush, his head up and his big tusks gleaming in the sunshine. Then he canght sight of the man standing there, and charged down upon him violently.

Apparently the scrub was less holding than Crosfield had anticipated, for it merely served to check the speed of the great pachyderm. He came ambling across the brush before Crosfield could get his rifle to his shoulder; then the huge beast swerved to one side, and kicked up his enormous legs like some colt might have done.

It was a broadside shot now, and obviously it was up to the marksman to get his prey behind the ear. He fired one shot, then another, and another, and as Norton heard it he started uneasily. To his trained ear there was something wrong, something perilously inadequate in the bursting charge of those shells. Three times more did Crosfield fire, and neither shot was followed by the clear report that should have gone with a properly-filled cartridge. It was obvious, too, that beyond arousing the elephant to a pitch of pain and madness, no vital mischief had been done.

It was up to Norton now to take a hand swore aloud. He was cursing that ineffective German ammunition by all his gods. He would have shouted to his companion, but already Crosfield had realised the danger.



He dropped his gun and sprinted along the open in Norton's direction as if all the fiends from the bottomless pit were after him. At the same time the practically uninjured elephant caught sight of his quarry, and charged after him through the scrub. Then, just as Norton got in a shell between the two wicked little eyes, the big rogue pitched forward and crashed headlong to the bottom of the pit that D'Jin and the other boy had so cunningly prepared for him. He lay there a huddled mass of flesh, past all mischief now.



"Well, that's the last time I ever use a German cartridge," Crosfield exclaimed. "What did you think of it, Costigan?"

"Be jabers, not much," Costigan grinned, "and it's glad I am that I didn't take a hand at the game. What are you going to do now?"

"Let him lie where he is," Crosfield said. "Of course, we are going to give you the tusks as a souvenir of the occasion, and a nice little present, too, if you only knew it. Get 'em off, D'Jin. And throw a few boughs and a big log or two over the brute's body. If you do the work properly, it'll be quite safe as far as any prowling beast of prey is concerned."

"What's the game, boss?" the grinning D'Jin asked.

"Well, I want that skull, at any rate. We are going down south presently, and we'll come back for it in a month or two. If you do what I ask you properly, the ants will see to the rest. What's that, Costigan? Oh, yes, you'd hardly believe it, but within a few weeks there won't be a scrap of that elephant left, once the ants get to it. When we come back, the skeleton will be polished as white as ivory. And now, then, we'll get down to the Cape as soon as D'Jin has finished."

It was three days later when, still accompanied by Costigan, the two friends crossed into Cape Colony by train. They were met on the border by a man who gave his name as Buckley, and who informed them, in a curt official way, that they could regard themselves as his prisoners on a charge of offences committed against the I.D.B. Act; also that in this particular case the information had been laid by the representative of the Diamond Fields Amalgamated. To which Crosfield listened with a smile on his face, and the information that the authorities could do as they pleased. Neither he nor his friend had any diamonds about them, nor were they ready to admit that they had ever handled anything of the kind. To all of which Buckley listened with a twinkle in his eye and a request to know if there was anybody in Cape Town who would be likely to come forward and offer bail. Crosfield responded that he didn't care, and that, so far as he was concerned, he was not prepared to ask favours from anyone.

For the next few weeks Crosfield and Norton spent their time as guests of the Government. They were searched with a thoroughness that allowed no loophole for escape, they wrote no letters, and were permitted to receive none. And so far no regular charge had been made against them, for the simple reason that there was no material evidence to go upon. But they were treated well enough, and had nothing to grumble about beyond the loss of their liberty.

It was only after they were released that they realised how thorough the search had been, not only as regards their persons, but also as concerned the neighbourhood from which they had come, and, indeed, Costigan subsequenUy reported that D'Jin had grown thin and haggard under the merciless cross-examination to which he had been subjected. But everything comes to an end in time, and there came a day when the adventurers were released, and were told that they could go where they pleased.

"Back to where we came from, perhaps?" Crosfield asked the discomfited Buckley politely.

"You can go to the devil, as far as I am concerned," that worried official responded. "Let me tell you this. I've been at this game for fifteen years, and I've had some bright intellects through my hands, but this is the first time I've been badly done. And if ever we meet in England, where you'll be safe, I shall be greatly obliged if you will tell me how the thing was worked."

"England's a long way off," Crosfield said. "But if we do meet there, perhaps you'll come and dine with Norton and myself at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, and then we might find ourselves in a position of greater freedom and less responsibility. For the present, good-bye, Buckley."

Ten days later the two friends were back again within half a mile of the spot where they had given their futile exhibition for Costigan's benefit. They had ascertained the night before, from the grinning D'Jin, that nothing had happened of any importance during the last month or so, and that, so far as he knew to the contrary, the body of the elephant was still in the pit that he had prepared for it. He was fain to admit that he had not been near the place himself, to which characteristic confession Crosfield listened with a smile. He dismissed the Kaffir presently, and, with Norton, made his way across the bush in the direction of the spot where the skeleton lay. It was just as he had expected. The ants had done their work thoroughly enough, and down there, in the bottom of the hole under the logs and brushwood, was a great gleaming heap of bones picked dry and clear. And Crosfield nodded approvingly; his smile was almost irritating to his companion.

"Now, perhaps, you will tell me what the game is," Norton said. "Why this interesting ceremony?"

"Well," Crosfield smiled, "we have come after our diamonds, which I told you were so safely hidden that no man could find them. And so they are. They are down there in that hole under that heap of bones. Ants can destroy most things, but they, can't eat diamonds. Now, don't stand there staring at me. Lend a hand and get all those logs and brushwood away, and help me to remove the skeleton. And go gently, because in the dust there the diamonds are lying, or we are the two unluckiest chaps in Africa to-day."

It was all done at length. The bones were carefully removed, and then Crosfield, on his hands and knees, began to sift amongst the dust. At the end of half an hour he straightened himself up and held out a trembling hand to his companion. In his grimy hand lay the six precious stones, the diamonds beyond the shadow of a doubt. Norton could do no more than gaze open-mouthed at his friend, and wait till the latter explained.

"It was like this," he said. "When Costigan turned up, I thought we were done. I had the diamonds on me, and he knew it. Of course, he played the game like the good fellow that he is, but he had his duty to think of, and it was a case of his wits against mine. And I knew perfectly well that he was not in the least likely to lose sight of us until he had handed us over to Buckley. If we had attempted to get away, he would have taken out a warrant for our arrest. So the obvious game was to go down to Cape Town and bluff it out. But that was no good unless we could save the stones. Then the inspiration came to me as the three of us were sitting here round the camp fire. Under Costigan's very eyes I extracted part of the bursting charge and shoved the diamonds into the cartridge cases in place of the bullets. Everything was in our favour—that bit of brush might have been placed there on purpose. So, when the time came, I just fired those stones into the shoulder of our four-footed friend and left the rest to chance. My idea was to come back here when those chaps yonder had to admit themselves beaten, and pick up the stones just as we have done. The odds were a million to one against anybody finding them in the meantime. At any rate, I knew those lazy Dutch devils wouldn't, and—well, there you are. There's only one thing now, and that's to get home."

"Not through Cape Town," Norton grinned.

"Not much," Crosfield said emphatically, "though I don't suppose they'd touch us again now if we did go that way. Still, we'd better be on the safe side. So I suggest that we make our way across country to Delagoa Bay and join a tramp steamer there. Carried unanimously?"

And there, down in Cape Town, Chief Inspector Buckley is still trying to puzzle out the manner in which those diamonds eluded him and found their way eventually to Chicago, where they now adorn the white throat of one of the greatest heiresses whose father ever made his pile in pork.


THE END

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