He called the room luckless, and meager, and drearyand with his inner mind thus fortified against the furnishings, he turned to the twelve inhabitants. An inverted pantheon, he thought, and again felt a little steadier, for having indulged the conceit.
The men were bronzed and weathered in the manner of all frontiersmen, their lips chapped white, their carriage expressive of privation and loss. Two of their number were Chinese, dressed identically in cloth shoes and gray cotton shifts; behind them stood a Maori native, his face tattooed in whorls of greenish-blue. Of the others, Moody could not guess the origin. He did not yet understand how the diggings could age a man in a matter of months; casting his gaze around the room, he reckoned himself the youngest man in attendance, when in fact several were his juniors and his peers. The glow of youth was quite washed from them. They would be crabbed forever, restless, snatching, gray in body, coughing dust into the brown lines of their palms. Moody thought them coarse, even quaint; he thought them men of little influence; he did not wonder why they were so silent. He wanted a brandy, and a place to sit and close his eyes.
He stood in the doorway a moment after entering, waiting to be received, but when nobody made any gesture of welcome or dismissal he took another step forward and pulled the door softly closed behind him. He made a vague bow in the direction of the window, and another in the direction of the hearth, to suffice as a wholesale introduction of himself, then moved to the side table and engaged himself in mixing a drink from the decanters set out for that purpose. He chose a cigar and cut it; placing it between his teeth, he turned back to the room, and scanned the faces once again. Nobody seemed remotely affected by his presence. This suited him. He seated himself in the only available armchair, lit his cigar, and settled back with the private sigh of a man who feels his daily comforts are, for once, very much deserved.
His contentment was short-lived. No sooner had he stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles (the salt on his trousers had dried, most provokingly, in tides of white) than the man on his immediate right leaned forward in his chair, prodded the air with the stump of his own cigar, and said, "Look hereyou've business, here at the Crown?"
This was rather abruptly phrased, but Moody's expression did not register as much. He bowed his head politely and explained that he had indeed secured a room upstairs, having arrived in town that very evening.
"Just off the boat, you mean?"
Moody bowed again and affirmed that this was precisely his meaning. So that the man would not think him short, he added that he was come from Port Chalmers, with the intention of trying his hand at digging for gold.
"That's good," the man said. "That's good. New finds up the beachshe's ripe with it. Black sands: that's the cry you'll be hearing; black sands up Charleston way; that's north of here, of courseCharleston. Though you'll still make pay in the gorge. You got a mate, or come over solo?"
"Just me alone," Moody said.
"No affiliations!" the man said.
"Well," Moody said, surprised again at his phrasing, "I intend to make my own fortune, that's all."
"No affiliations," the man repeated. "And no business; you've no business, here at the Crown?"
This was impertinentto demand the same information twicebut the man seemed genial, even distracted, and he was strumming with his fingers at the lapel of his vest. Perhaps, Moody thought, he had simply not been clear enough. He said, "My business at this hotel is only to rest. In the next few days I will make inquiries around the diggingswhich rivers are yielding, which valleys are dryand acquaint myself with the digger's life, as it were. I intend to stay here at the Crown for one week, and after that, to make my passage inland."
Excerpted from The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Copyright © 2013 by Eleanor Catton. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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