During his sixteen years on the raw fields Thomas Balfour had met a great many men like Walter Moody, and it was a credit to his temperament that he had retained, over these years, a deep affection and regard for the virgin state of men yet untested by experience, yet untried. Balfour was sympathetic to ambition, and unorthodox, as a self-made man, in his generosity of spirit. Enterprise pleased him; desire pleased him. He was disposed to like Moody simply for the reason that the other man had undertaken a pursuit about which he evidently knew very little, and from which he must expect a great return.
On this particular night, however, Balfour was not without agenda. Moody's entrance had been something of a surprise to the twelve assembled men, who had taken considerable precautions to ensure that they would not be disturbed. The front parlor of the Crown Hotel was closed that night for a private function, and a boy had been posted under the awning to watch the street, lest any man had set his mind on drinking therewhich was unlikely, for the Crown smoking room was not generally celebrated for its society or its charm, and indeed was very often empty, even on the week-end nights when the diggers flooded back from the hills in droves to spend their dust on liquor at the shanties in the town. The boy on duty was Mannering's, and had in his possession a stout bundle of gallery tickets to give away for free. The performanceSensations from the Orient!was a new act, and guaranteed to please, and there were cases of champagne ready in the opera-house foyer, courtesy of Mannering himself, in honor of opening night. With these diversions in place, and believing that no boat would risk a landing in the murky evening of such an inclement day (the projected arrivals in the shipping pages of the West Coast Times were, by that hour, all accounted for), the assembled party had not thought to make provision for an accidental stranger who might have already checked in to the hotel some half-hour before nightfall, and so was already inside the building when Mannering's boy took up his post under the dripping porch facing the street.
Walter Moody, despite his reassuring countenance, and despite the courteous detachment with which he held himself, was nevertheless still an intruder. The men were at a loss to know how to persuade him to leave, without making it clear that he had intruded, and thus exposing the subversive nature of their assembly. Thomas Balfour had assumed the task of vetting him only by the accident of their proximity, next to the firea happy conjunction, this, for Balfour was tenacious, for all his bluster and rhapsody, and well accustomed to turning a scene to his own gain.
"Yes, well," he said now, "one learns the customs soon enough, and everyone has to start where you are standingas an apprentice, I mean; knowing nothing at all. What sowed the seed, then, if you don't object to my asking? That's a private interest of minewhat brings a fellow down here, you know, to the ends of the earthwhat sparks a man."
Moody took a pull on his cigar before answering. "My object was a complicated one," he said. "A matter of family disputation, painful to relate, which accounts for my having made the crossing solo."
"Oh, but in that you are not alone," Balfour said cheerfully. "Every boy here is on the run from somethingyou can be sure of it!"
"Indeed," said Moody, thinking this a rather alarming prospect.
"Everyone's from somewhere else," Balfour went on. "Yes: that's the very heart of it. We're all from somewhere else. And as for family: you'll find brothers and fathers enough, in the gorge."
"You are kind to offer comfort."
Balfour was grinning broadly now. "There's a phrase," he said, waving his cigar with such emphasis that he scattered feathers of ash all over his vest. "Comfort! If this counts as comfort, then you're a very Puritan, my boy."
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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