"You've not dug before, then."
"Never seen the color?"
"Only at the jeweler'son a watch, or on a buckle; never pure."
"But you've dreamed it, pure! You've dreamed itkneeling in the water, sifting the metal from the grit!"
"I suppose well no, I haven't, exactly," Moody said. The expansive style of this man's speech was rather peculiar to him: for all the man's apparent distraction, he spoke eagerly, and with an energy that was almost importunate. Moody looked around, hoping to exchange a sympathetic glance with one of the others, but he failed to catch anybody's eye. He coughed, adding, "I suppose I've dreamed of what comes afterwardthat is, what the gold might lead to, what it might become."
The man seemed pleased by this answer. "Reverse alchemy, is what I like to call it," he said, "the whole business, I meanprospecting. Reverse alchemy. Do you seethe transformationnot into gold, but out of it"
"It is a fine conceit, sir,"reflecting only much later that this notion chimed very nearly with his own recent fancy of a pantheon reversed.
"And your inquiries," the man said, nodding vigorously, "your inquiriesyou'll be asking around, I supposewhat shovels, what cradlesand maps and things."
"Yes, precisely. I mean to do it right."
The man threw himself back into his armchair, evidently very amused. "One week's board at the Crown Hoteljust to ask your questions!" He gave a little shout of laughter. "And then you'll spend two weeks in the mud, to earn it back!"
Moody recrossed his ankles. He was not in the right disposition to return the other man's energy, but he was too rigidly bred to consider being impolite. He might have simply apologized for his discomfiture, and admitted some kind of general malaisethe man seemed sympathetic enough, with his strumming fingers, and his rising gurgle of a laughbut Moody was not in the habit of speaking candidly to strangers, and still less of confessing illness to another man. He shook himself internally and said, in a brighter tone of voice,
"And you, sir? You are well established here, I think?"
"Oh, yes," replied the other. "Balfour Shipping, you'll have seen us, right past the stockyards, prime locationWharf-street, you know. Balfour, that's me. Thomas is my Christian name. You'll need one of those on the diggings: no man goes by Mister in the gorge."
"Then I must practice using mine," Moody said. "It is Walter. Walter Moody."
"Yes, and they'll call you anything but Walter too," Balfour said, striking his knee. "'Scottish Walt,' maybe. 'Two-Hand Walt,' maybe. 'Wally Nugget.' Ha!"
"That name I shall have to earn."
Balfour laughed. "No earning about it," he said. "Big as a lady's pistol, some of the ones I've seen. Big as a lady'sbut, I'm telling you, not half as hard to put your hands on."
Thomas Balfour was around fifty in age, compact and robust in body. His hair was quite gray, combed backward from his forehead, and long about the ears. He wore a spade-beard, and was given to stroking it downward with the cup of his hand when he was amusedhe did this now, in pleasure at his own joke. His prosperity sat easily with him, Moody thought, recognizing in the man that relaxed sense of entitlement that comes when a lifelong optimism has been ratified by success. He was in shirtsleeves; his cravat, though of silk, and finely wrought, was spotted with gravy and coming loose at the neck. Moody placed him as a libertarianharmless, renegade in spirit, and cheerful in his effusions.
"I am in your debt, sir," he said. "This is the first of many customs of which I will be entirely ignorant, I am sure. I would have certainly made the error of using a surname in the gorge."
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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