It was late in the evening of Melbourne Cup Day. In one of the dining-rooms of the Victoria Club three men sat smoking and talking earnestly together. Certainly the events of the last sixteen hours furnished ample subject for conversation.
Melbourne Cup Day means to the Australian all that Derby Day does to the Englishman. It means, also, many things that even the greatest sporting event of the English year cannot mean to the inhabitants of the compact little island, provided with so many other facilities for amusement and intercourse. In this land of tremendous distances—where four million people occupy an area equal to that of the United States,—in this island continent of opposites—where Christmas comes in midsummer and Fourth of July in midwinter, where swans are black and birds are songless,—this is the one day when all classes and conditions assemble at one place and take their pleasures as a unit.
From Victoria and New South Wales, from North, South, and West Australia, from Queensland, even from Tasmania and the sister colony of New Zealand, separated from the continent by miles of water, visitors of all kind and degree had flocked by the thousands. When the starting flag fell that morning there were assembled about the track picturesque miners and rugged bushmen, self-made capitalists, book-makers, and millionaire wool growers, charming women and well-groomed men, to the number of almost a quarter of a million. To all of these the occasion was one anticipated and planned for during twelve months past. It was the occasion when their long pent Anglo-Saxon sporting taste—for nine out of every ten Australians are of English ancestry—intensified by the free, out-of-door life, and by the absence of the outlets furnished in a more concentrated state of civilization, found exuberant expression. To each it carried, besides, some special significance, according to his rank and occupation. To the betting man it meant that a single firm of book-makers had on deposit in the banks of Melbourne and Sidney wagers to the amount of over one hundred thousand pounds sterling; for, like the English Derby, this is a “classical” event, upon which bets are often made for the coming year the very day after the preceding race has been run. Among the women it meant triumphs of millinery, gowns that had been ordered from London and Paris many months or even a year in advance, the fashionable display of Goodwood, the Derby, and the Ascot all compressed into a single day.
Among the mine owners and wool growers it meant journeys by rail, boat, or private coach, extending over hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles, and lasting for days and weeks, even months. Australia has well been called “The Land of the Golden Fleece.” Its flocks of sheep are the largest, its gold mines and coal mines the richest in the world. Its flocks are counted not merely by hundreds or thousands, but by hundreds of thousands; and a single sheep station often extends over a hundred thousand acres. But with this immensity of interests there is linked the familiar loneliness of grandeur. The greater a country gentleman’s possessions, the farther he is removed from society, until the largest proprietors are often separated by forty or fifty miles from their nearest neighbors. For this solitude the one outlet is the journey to Melbourne for the annual cup races.
Upon this particular day the fashionable parade had eclipsed in size and splendor that of any previous year. In addition to the races, there had been the notable first night of the Grand Opera House, opened now for the first time to the public; and the day had culminated in an evening of such brilliancy and distinction that the three men who sat talking at the Victoria Club found superlatives too weak to express their enthusiasm.
“Rather than miss this day, I would have lost five years of my life,” said one of the group. Then, turning to beckon the waiter, in order that he might emphasize his words by some refreshment, he observed a guest of the club—evidently a stranger—sitting alone at an adjoining table. With the exuberant new-world hospitality of a man who had evidently not been a loser in the day’s exchange of wealth, he stretched out a welcoming hand, with, “Stranger, won’t you join us?”
Without waiting for further formality, the solitary man strode up to the group and seated himself at their table.
“Gentlemen,” he began, “I couldn’t help overhearing what you said. I, too, would have given a good deal to have been a spectator. In fact, I had been looking forward to this event for a whole year, and, as luck would have it, missed it by the delay of an hour. If the steamer from Calcutta had reached Sydney half an hour before sundown yesterday, instead of half an hour after, I should have been in Melbourne early this morning, instead of late to-night. As it is, I arrived only ten minutes ago, and, having a card to your club from the Wanderer’s in London, I came here to take the edge off my disappointment. The next best thing to being on the scene of action is to hear about it from an eye-witness. So I depend upon you to give me an account of the affair. At any rate, I only hope the races aren’t finished.”
“Oh, of course there will be more races,” said the spokesman of the party; “but such a sight as the opening of the Opera House Melbourne isn’t likely to see again. There were stars, of course, but no one noticed what was going on on the stage, you understand; the real show was in the house, which was simply packed. Such women! Such stunning gowns! And the jewels—why, it looked as though half the kingdoms of Europe had lent their crown jewels for the occasion.
“In all that gorgeousness it was mighty hard to pick out the handsomest face or the finest ornaments. But of course there was one woman here, just as there is everywhere, who carried off the palm. It wasn’t only that she was beautiful, though in her dark, stately fashion she was far and away the handsomest woman present; and it wasn’t only that she sat where she did in the front of the stage box, with her solitary escort in the background, when every other box in the theater was crammed; but upon the bodice of her gown—it was a gorgeous gold and white brocaded and lace-trimmed affair, so I heard it whispered among the women—she wore the most striking and gorgeous ornament in the entire audience. This was a jockey-cap made entirely of precious stones; the peak was a solid mass of diamonds, the band a row of sapphires, while the crown consisted of an enormous ruby. ‘Twas rather showy, of course, but so appropriate for this particular race night that no woman could have resisted wearing it. Of course it stood out wonderfully—it was as big as a half-crown piece, you understand,—and it wasn’t long before every glass in the house was fixed upon that pin and the beautiful woman that wore it.
“I turned my glass on it with the rest,” he added, laughing, “and that’s how I got such a good photograph of it.”
“Speaking of precious stones,” said the stranger, who so far had listened without comment, “reminds me of a fifty-thousand-pound ruby that once involved a daring young Englishman in a series of strange adventures.”
“Give us the adventures,” said the spokesman of the party, scenting at once a stirring tale that would make a fitting wind-up to the day’s varied excitements. “A jewel always serves as a magnet for romance, especially if the jewel is a fifty-thousand-pound ruby.”
“To begin with,” said the strange man, apparently unmoved by his host’s last remarks, “you must understand that, while there are millions of rubies mined every year, a really first-class stone is one of the rarest as well as the most valuable gems in the world. In Ceylon, where some of the largest ruby mines in the world are located, the Moormen, who have a monopoly of the gem trade, often bring down from the north country bullock cartloads of uncut rubies, but probably in handling ten million gems not one will be found of the desired fineness and of flawless purity and luster. These Moormen are the shrewdest, with a few exceptions the most unscrupulous, and always the most wonderful judges of gems in the world, and they are without exception rich. They have parceled out the gem-fields in the Tamil districts, and the natives whom they hire to hunt gems along the river bottoms, where the finest are found, are subjected to the most rigid scrutiny and daily search; for, though the diggers are always naked, they often attempt to conceal gems in their ears, nostrils, armpits, or elsewhere, with the end in view of disposing of them to rival Moormen. For, though these Moormen are openly fair dealers among themselves, they cannot resist buying gems smuggled from their neighbors’ fields. Consequently, a complete detective service is attached to each one of these diggings, and woe to the Tamil who is caught attempting to smuggle gems across the lines! He simply disappears, that’s all. No one is ever called to account, and the awful secrecy of his captors and the mystery surrounding his end appal his fellows, keeping them in a subjection that is all but slavery, and in some respects infinitely worse.
“But these Tamil diggers are very wise, and they know when they happen upon a grand uncut gem. Perhaps they will bury it again and spend a whole year maneuvering to get the jewel over the lines to the rival buyers, finally giving it up, and turning it over to the owners of the fields. As the really fine ones are rarely larger than a hazelnut, and each is worth from twenty to one hundred times as much as a diamond of the same size, it is worth the digger’s while to make a lifelong study of the relative values, and then profit thereby.
“Now, this young Englishman had a curious hobby. For years he had desired to possess one of these almost priceless rubies, and it was partly with the hope of obtaining one that he visited Ceylon, where he had left orders with the Moormen gem dealers to reserve for him the finest and largest stone that could be found.
“Meantime he headed an exploring party, whose way lay through the jungles about a hundred miles north of Kandy, toward the ancient Buddhist city Anarajapoora, the throne of the famous King Tissa, the shrine of the oldest tree in the world,—the sacred Bo. It was a long and tedious march. The travelers usually halted at mid-morning, slept till the shadows cooled the air a little, then resumed the journey as far into the night as possible, sometimes continuing till the next mid-morning, when the sun’s heat again brought them to a standstill. On this particular daybreak they had halted beside a swift stream, doubtful at which point to attempt to ford it. The leader had sent men both up and down the stream to search for a suitable spot, and wandered along its banks, more occupied with the glories of the tropic sunrise, the sparkle of the dew on the giant spider-threads stretched from limb to limb, the stir of rare birds and animals with which the jungle was more than alive, than with the problem of fording the stream. Upon reaching an inviting nook, he sat down to roll a cigarette, first taking care to search for any jungle enemies in ambush which might make him legitimate prey. Suddenly he heard a great crashing of branches in the thicket on the opposite side of the river. Then, like a flash of lightning, a naked Tamil, red with blood, a look of desperation and hopeless despair on his face, plunged out of the avalanche of green beyond, and, leaping headlong into the water, struck out across the stream. The traveler had risen to his feet, and stood watching amazedly the course of the swimmer, which was aimless, like that of a desperate man wandering through a totally unfamiliar country. His head was shaven closely, though the natives usually wear their hair long. He swam with great effort. Indeed, the watcher on the bank saw that it was ten to one against the swimmer’s success, and instinctively his heart went out in pity. The unfortunate wretch was now being carried rapidly down stream and toward the man on the bank, who could see the straining of every fiber in the Tamil’s body, even the look of despair in his bloodshot eyes. Suddenly, just as success seemed assured, the swimmer threw up his hands, uttered a strange moan, and went down. The man on the bank rushed down the stream, stopped at a point where a huge banyan tree spread its branches far over the swollen waters, and climbed out on a thick limb. A moment later he saw the body of the Tamil rise almost directly beneath him. Clinging with one hand to the tree, he lowered himself over the treacherous torrent, and with a mighty effort seized the drowning man by the ankle and so dragged him to the shore.
“Back into ambush he half carried the poor wreck, and, laying him on the sod, began the task of reviving him. In less than ten minutes the Tamil opened his eyes, discharged a gallon of water, then gasped, struggled up into a half-sitting posture, and looked about him. When he saw the Englishman bending over him, and comprehended, he uttered the most pitiful wails of gratitude imaginable, groveling in the dust, kissing his preserver’s feet. The water had washed the blood from him, but he was a mass of wounds, scars, bruises, lash marks, and bullet cuts. How he ever managed to go as far as he must have gone, leaving a trail of blood behind him, was a mystery. But what specially attracted the Englishman’s attention was a blood-stained bandage around the fugitive’s leg, midway between the knee and thigh, which was the only rag on the poor fellow’s body. He was about to question him, by signs and syllables, for his knowledge of the Tamil patois was very limited, when he heard another great crashing of the thicket across the stream, accompanied by the sound of voices. Instantly, there flashed across the poor creature’s face a look of unspeakable terror, as he panted out in hoarse gutturals, ‘Sa-ya-ta! Sa-ya-ta!’ an appeal for salvation which would have moved a heart of stone. Motioning to him to remain quiet—an unnecessary precaution, since he was scarcely able to lift his head from the marshy ground—his preserver gave him brandy; then, by a circuitous route, ran up stream, coming out directly opposite four mounted Moormen who were ranting up and down the shore.
“Upon his appearance, the horsemen approached, and asked if he had seen any one go by. They were on the track, they explained, of a Tamil gem-digger, who was smuggling a ruby worth fifty thousand pounds over the lines of the Bakook-Khan gem-fields, and with the owner of the fields had chased him sixty miles. The man could be recognized, they said, because his head was shaven, and he was quite naked, except for a bandage tied around one leg, in which he had cut a hole and buried the ruby.
“To all of this the Englishman answered that he had seen such a man leap from the jungle and plunge into the river only a few moments ago, adding that they would better wait until the flood went down before searching the river bottom, as it would be impossible to find even an elephant in that muddy water. At this the Moormen set up a howl of rage, and, after an angry consultation, passed on down the stream, scanning the river bank. The traveler was about to return to the Tamil, realizing the man’s immediate danger, when another crowd burst through the jungle opposite, and at the sight of the Englishman approached him with much the same story as had the first, except that, according to their tale, the gem-digger had been smuggling from the Sabat- Keel fields. To them he made the same reply, adding that another party had just been there from the Bakook-Khan fields, making a similar claim. At this the spokesman set up a terrific wail, denouncing them as rogues, thieves, impostors, and heaven knows what not. But just in the midst of his tirade he was cut short by the approach of still another band of claimants, and immediately the three groups of angry Moormen were in the midst of a wrangle over the ownership of the disputed gem.
“In their absorption the Englishman saw his chance to escape. With an occasional glance backward to make sure that he was not observed, he made his way stealthily to that spot in the ambush where he had left the wounded Tamil.
“The man was gone!
“For a moment his rescuer stood nonplussed. Then, as he looked first one way and then the other, his eye caught the gleam, a few yards away, of the silver top of the brandy flask that he had left with his patient by way of a comforter. As he stooped to recover it, he detected a fresh blood stain on the grass, and farther on still another. Evidently the Tamil, overcome by his fear of capture, had attempted flight,—an undertaking that in his enfeebled state meant certain and early death. Without stopping to consider the danger of following his ill-fated protégé alone into the unknown depths of the jungle, the Englishman started in pursuit. Before he had gone five steps, however, he realized his peril. Beyond him, creeping along on all fours, he saw the blood-stained fugitive, moving, unconscious of his peril, into the very jaws of a huge tiger, crouched ready to spring upon his prey.”
“And the Tamil was killed?” cried the party.
“No,” said the stranger; “the Tamil was saved from this horrible death, though only after his rescuer had passed through a hand-to-hand struggle with the tiger, in which he was almost killed. As it was, he lost the use of his right arm for the rest of his life. But, in spite of all that he could do, the fugitive died a few hours later, overcome by fright and fatigue.”
“And the ruby?”
“The ruby, of course, fell into the hands of the Englishman, who, convinced that, owing to the multiplicity of claimants, it would be impossible ever to ascertain the stone’s rightful owner, concealed it in his tobacco pouch before he was joined by his party. These, he learned when he was brought to his senses, had returned several hours ago from the other side of the river, to which they had retired, frightened by the many outcries of the mounted Moormen, and had found their leader only after a long search, which would have been hopeless except for the blood trail left by the wounded Tamil.
“For a few days after his return to their camp, wounded as he was, and weakened by his encounter with the tiger, he gave little thought to the stone that had fallen into his hands, as if from the sky. But with his earliest convalescence, his jewel mania returned, intensified by the actual possession of a ruby that it afterwards proved was, no doubt, the finest in the world. By the time that he reached Amsterdam, to which he had taken passage at his earliest opportunity, with the idea of having his treasure cut by an expert, this mania had reached such a pitch that it was only with the greatest effort that he could finally make up his mind to leave it in the hands of a jewel cutter; and from the moment that it was out of his possession he began to suspect every person that he met, the jewel cutter included, of a desire to rob him of his treasure. What gave color to his suspicions was the fact that at the shop where he left the ruby delay followed delay, and postponement succeeded postponement, the dealer putting him off each time with vague excuses and never-fulfilled promises. At length, after five weeks of these mysterious delays and excuses, almost crazed by wearing anxiety, he confided his secret to one of a firm of private detectives, a man whom he employed to watch and investigate the movements of the jewel cutter.
“On the very night of the day in which he had taken this step, the jewel was returned to him; it had proved to be a stone not only magnificent in size and color, but curiously ribbed with white rays,—that is, a star ruby, pronounced to be the finest in existence. But the reaction from his fright and anxiety, joined with the effect of his recent adventure, from which he had not yet fully recovered, cut short his joy. He was seized with brain fever, and for days lay unconscious in the room of his lodging-house, unattended except by his doctor and landlady. When he finally returned to his senses he found that the jewel was gone. At a time when his life was despaired of, the detective employed to protect his interests called at his lodging, and, thinking the man as good as dead, stole the gem, and—”
Suddenly the eyes of the listeners turned to the door behind the speaker. There was a rustle of skirts and the whispered exclamation: “There she is now.”
The story teller started, flushing at the interruption, but only for an instant. Then he faced about, leaped to his feet, and, rushing forward like a maniac, tore from the breast of the mysterious beauty of the opera the glittering ornament upon which, an hour before, had been focused the attention of an entire audience.
“Here,” he cried, brandishing a handful of lace and satin from which gleamed the jeweled jockey-cap, “is the stolen star ruby!—and there,” pointing to a man’s figure that appeared in the doorway, “is the cowardly wretch that stole it!”
It was not until then that his companions observed that the stranger’s right arm hung useless at his side.