As to dress and general appearance, I don’t think any one would have recognised the fresh-coloured, moderately well got-up youngster who used to sit in the Squire’s pew at Bishop’s Cote Church, or even the amateur farm-labourer holding the plough occasionally, or driving the engine at Dibblestowe Leys. The man who has just come out of the tent wears certainly a different appearance. He is arranging his raiment preparatory to commencing ‘the night shift’—eight hours uninterrupted work, nearly one hundred and fifty feet below the earth’s surface. The which term commences at eight P.M., finishing at four o’clock in the morning. This man is taller and broader than the slight stripling who left England four years since in the Marco Polo. His arms are bare to the elbows, up to which is rolled a close-fitting flannel shirt. They are bronzed with exposure to a fiercer sun than that which ripens England’s harvests, and the muscles stand out, cord-like, in relief. Round the waist, which is that of an athlete in high training, is a leathern strap tightly belted. He wears trousers of moleskin which, though clean and of fairly good cut, have, from constant washing with water holding a large proportion of clay in solution, become of a bright and cheerful yellow, altogether ineradicable. Yet, though the garb is plain and workmanlike, there is no trace of unnecessary coarseness of habit. The short hair and trimmed beard are those of the fashion-guided unit of humanity, while a studied air of cleanliness denoting regular baths and ablutions is plainly visible to the observant eye. This man is Harry Pole, the digger, myself, kind reader, after four years’ steady, ill-rewarded toil at Australian tralian and indeed, New Zealand goldfields—no nearer, as may be surmised, to the fortune which was to precede the priceless gift of the hand of Ruth Allerton.
Let us listen to the conversation of this man and his comrades.
‘I don’t see the use of going any furder with this confounded claim; here we’ve been bustin’ ourselves for the last three months, night and day, and not a foot nearer to the gold than we was when the first shovelful was took out. We haven’t a pound to bless ourselves with, and we’re in debt to Mrs. Mangrove, at the Beehive store, that deep that I’m ashamed to go in for powder, or a bit of fuse. We’re on the bottom safe enough, and there’s not gold enough to put on the p’int of a needle. I say ding it this very night, and let’s try for a show somewhere else.’
This encouraging speech, which most accurately described our financial position and prospects, capital and expectations, is made by Mr Cyrus Yorke, a young man of unusual physical power, but weak as to the reasoning faculties. He is of English descent, born in Australia, and though possessing many good qualities, is incorrigibly careless, besides being averse to sustained labour of body or mind. He is the only man of the party who is not a bachelor. His wife is a good-looking, good-tempered little woman, with twice as much sense as her spouse. She is the housewife for the party, and is treated on that account and for other reasons with great respect and consideration. Indeed, but for her conciliatory ways, it is most probable that some one of Yorke’s many provoking sins of omission or commission would have led long ere this to his exclusion from the party.
‘We’re bound to see the end of this drive,’ I say, in an argumentative tone. ‘Everybody believes that the “lead” lies due west of us, and in thirty or forty feet we must strike it, if it’s there at all. It would be foolish to throw away all our work and expense, perhaps, just a few yards from good gold.’
‘We’re bound to drive oot to the last inch,’ said the square-set determined-looking man smoking a short black pipe. ‘Harry here’s marked and ciphered it all out, and we all agreed to it. What’s the use of throwing up the sponge afore the fight’s over? What dost thou say, Major?’
‘I fully agree with Pole,’ said the individual addressed, who, in monkey-jacket and generally rather roughish array, was lying on one of the stretchers reading an English newspaper. ‘He has worked out the thing, as you say. I was too lazy to follow him. But he is generally right and Cyrus is always wrong; so, perhaps, he had better take his line and mind his immediate business, which is to tackle this night shift, and wire-in at the cross-cut without any more humbug.’
‘Well, I’m blessed,’ growled the unpopular candidate, ‘if that ain’t a nice way to talk to a mate and a shareholder, Major One would think I was a wages-man, the way you three coves bosses it over me. You’ll rouse the British lion one of these fine days, and so I tell you.’
Apparently Cyrus Yorke was minded to defer poking up that long-suffering royal beast, until a more convenient season—for he walked on to the ‘brace’ and commenced to peel off his heavier garments, preparatory to descending into the bowels of the earth, without more ado.
‘You’re all agin me,’ he said, as he opened his vast chest and stretched his colossal arms above his head, as if trying whether his joints were about to act in their usual manner. ‘But that’s the way in this country, the majority always has the pull. It’s time that kind o’ thing was stopped, I think. Now, Mr. Joseph Bulder, you go and lead the old mare. I s’pose you don’t want me to break my back, as bad as I am.’
‘Thou’rt a rattlin’ fine chap, if thou’d use thy four bones as is summot like, and drop botherin’ thy old turnip of a head, as God Almighty never intended ye to do nowt wi’ but tak’ ither folks’ orders. I’ll back thee to put down a shaft agin any chap in Yatala. But don’t thee go argufying, for it spoils thee. Ask thee wife else. Steady! Bess, old girl.’
Cyrus Yorke made no further reply, but clasping the rope with his hands above his head, placed one foot in the loop at the end and swung himself off the wooden stage, which is always built at the mouth of a mining shaft. A ‘sprang,’ being a stout piece of hard wood, was inserted between the rope and the iron roller on which the rope ran and thus the miner was slowly and steadily lowered down the deep, dark, apparently fathomless shaft.
In being lowered, dependent upon a single rope which, though apparently strong, has been known to break, the sensations are complicated if the depth be much over a hundred feet. The closeness of the sides of the shaft to the explorer gives a species of false security, by no means borne out by reason. An inexperienced cragsman would hardly consent to be lowered a hundred and fifty feet over the face of a Hebridean precipice, with the sea a thousand feet below, and nought but the sky and clamouring sea-fowl around—above.
Yet one adventure is fully as dangerous in reality as the other. Let but a sudden spasm, or syncope, attack the adventurer in the shaft, and if he loses hold of the rope, no power on earth can save him. The smooth hard sides of the shaft furnish no foot-hold, did the velocity acquired in falling not prevent him from making use of them. Down, down, he must fall until the end of the long cruel pit be reached—and then, let those say who have ever assisted to raise a man, who from carelessness, foul air, any one of the many accidents common to miners, has fallen down a deep shaft.
In this instance Cyrus was not fated to illustrate any of these dismal theories. Holding the rope easily with one hand, and occasionally preventing by adroit touch of foot against the sides of the shaft the rope from swinging round, and so discomposing his equilibrium, he passed swiftly yet surely down to the bottom level, and having exhausted his small supply of ill-temper, crept along a gallery running at right angles to the shaft, where, seizing a pick, he commenced to knock down on to the floor of the gallery a stratum of mixed sand, pebbles, and small quartz fragments. Of these there was a layer about nine inches thick in the roof of the gallery, or ‘drive,’ as it is invariably called in Australian mining parlance. He had dragged after him a large raw hide bucket which he found in the bottom of the shaft. This he set up on end, and quickly filling, drew to the shaft and attached to the iron hook at the end of the rope by which he had descended. He then pulled twice a small line which hung down, almost invisible, close by the wall of the shaft. This line moved a rude apparatus, in the nature of an indicator, at the mouth of the shaft. It was a hammer-like piece of hardwood above a plate of tin, on which, at each pull of the line, it smote smartly. The meaning of the percussion was, attention—all ready—or pull up, as the case might be. The old mare appeared to understand it, for she at once pricked up her ears, moved herself square to a singletree by which her trace-chains were fastened, holding herself in readiness to draw.
‘Go on, old woman,’ said Joe Bulder, ‘haul away.’
The intelligent animal, long trained to this particular kind of work, needed no further urging. Setting herself staunchly to the collar, she drew steadily at the rope, now tightened by the weight of the leathern bag, with, perhaps, a hundred weight and a half of gravel therein. She walked along the track made by her own feet, called by miners the ‘horse walk,’ its position being formally indicated by two lines of very hastily constructed rail fence, and drew the auriferous burden yet nearer to the upper air. When she reached the limit of the horse walk, denoted merely by a sapling laid across two forked up-rights, she stopped promptly, holding, however, the rope, and neither turning nor yet permitting it to slacken. At that moment the bucket appeared slightly above the brace at the shaft, and was taken by the topman, Joe Bulder, who, lifting it to one side, unhooked it and placed on the hook an empty bucket of the same construction, ready for the unpromising descent.
The lower portion of the rope is disconnected with the former one, and the mare being informed—one really does not see how—that her tenacity is no longer needed, complacently turns round and trots the whole way in, quite unaided, turning herself with great agility at the end, and disengaging the rope from her hind legs most cleverly. I then, in turn, take hold of the rope, place my foot in the leathern bucket, and go down slowly out of the sunshine in the humid darkness of the lower earth, with the prospect of eight hours continuous work before me.
After all, it is not so hard to bear. We are, all four of us, in magnificent health and condition, ‘fit to go for a man’s life,’ as Cyrus Yorke says, which means that we are hardened by toil, trained down by exercise and regular diet, until very little improvement could have been made upon our condition, had we to run a match against time, fight bushrangers, or accomplish any of the feats of strength, speed, or endurance, which men are foolish enough to attempt for cash or vain-glory in the pride of early manhood.
We are gold miners, neither more nor less—diggers, as the more general term is. Such we have been for the last three or four years, during most of which time we have been together, sharing the same toils or privations, transient successes or protracted misfortunes. Joe Bulder and I have, of course, been associated since we left England together. The Major and Cyrus had by chance become mates in the colony of Victoria, where we first met them, and by the merest hazard joined forces with us. Since then we have journeyed together. Quitted moderate goldfields where nothing more than an easy liberal livelihood was to be had for the stern hazards of a new rush, at a moment’s notice. Here, ‘dividing mates,’ as the mining phrase is, one half of the party, when times were bad, working at bush or other labour, in order to provide food and raiment, tools and lodging for the whole, while the other pair tried the mining ventures of the locality, on the chance of striking, at any moment, a fortune, small or great, to be loyally and equally divided into four parts.
That the Major, as he was always called, had been an officer in Her Majesty’s army, and in the cavalry arm of the service, no one doubted for a moment who had been in his company, and who was capable of verifying the habitudes of an officer and a gentleman. To what regiment he had been attached, he did not think it apparently necessary to explain, nor did we at any time ask him. Such examples of reticence were innumerable ‘on diggings.’ Silence was generally observed as to people’s antecedents. It being obvious that to go about questioning everybody as to what position he had originally occupied, and for what reasons he had concluded to adopt a miner’s life, would have been altogether futile, besides being patently ridiculous and impertinent. And it will be conceded by all who have gained their experience upon Australian goldfields, that for whatever sins diggers may be responsible bad manners, and lack of genuine courtesy, cannot be reckoned among them.
The Major, a man of four or five and thirty, was in the full vigour of manhood. He had evidently seen a good deal of the world, and in many phases of society, though he habitually spoke little of himself and merely permitted such glimpses of his European experience to escape him half unconsciously. He was extremely fond of reading, and though by no means zealous in the performance of manual labour for its own sake, performed his quota efficiently enough. He and I, with Joe Bulder, usually shared one of the smaller tents. We took our meals in common. This might have been distressing under the circumstances. But Joe’s and Cyrus Yorke’s original habitudes had become so altered by the influence of travel and cultured association, that few of their superiors would have objected to their companionship on the warpath.
Mrs. Yorke and the two children had the cart, with its tilt and other accommodations, to themselves, and, indeed, this nomadic dwelling was far from uncomfortable, with its divers and manifold contrivances for ease and comfort.
Does it occur to some, as yet unexpatriated, that the life I have roughly sketched was a dull, laborious, well nigh unendurable existence, to be led by men who had the hereditary title to move in good society, nay, who had at one time of their lives shared that lesser Elysium? Was such the case, when, added to the specific drawbacks, was that of hopelessness as to the future, quickly subsiding to dull indifference? Let us calmly consider.
As a matter of fact, we were far from miserable. Indeed, if I assert that we were in a condition bordering upon absolute contentment, even happiness, incredible as it may appear, I should be nearer the mark. For consider, in the first place, miners are absolutely their own masters, perfectly independent, quamdiu se bene gesserint, utterly free from fealty to all but the Queen and the commissioner. We were ‘by many a league of ocean-foam’ separated from Her Most Gracious Majesty, but the latter potentate was an abiding and highly vitalised fact.
I see him now. How many years have rolled by. Yet I stand up and feel inclined to lift my hat, as if it were yesterday. An erect, stalwart, middle-aged man, sitting his wiry thoroughbred with careless ease, bold-visaged, eagle-eyed, with the stamp ‘of ours’ writ large, like our mate, the Major, on every movement of his body, on every expression of his face, on every trick of speech, as he calls to the half-dozen grey-hounds that follow him through the camp, as if his thoughts dwelt more with them than with the crowding miners who press and throng to get a word of audience, a passing nod, or even a look of recognition from the autocrat of the goldfields.
And, in good sooth, Captain Blake, formerly of Her Majesty’s 11th Hussars, was an autocrat by instinct, habit, education, and circumstance, if ever there was one upon God’s earth. He it was, certainly, who more inexorably than the Roman Centurion, was wont to say, ‘Go here, or go there,’ and to this man, ‘do this, and he doeth it.’ For, from his decision, there was, at that time, no appeal. The Medes and Persians had apparently drawn up the scanty Goldfields’ Regulations of that day. Crude and inapplicable to the multiform elaborate complications of the mining industry, the largest discretionary power was implied. And William Devereux Blake, well known at many a mess-table in England and Ireland as the Devil’s Own Billy Blake, was precisely the man to accept all the responsibility of the position. It would have crushed a weaker man. But with a clear head, an utterly fearless, perhaps aggressive, organisation, and a natural turn for acting as a leader and ruler of men, he had hitherto avoided misadventure in his consulship. Large were the issues with which he had to deal, and puzzling were the mining laws which he had to administer. A bold, ready, decisive manner sufficed to carry him through everything; and though occasional dissentients might object to his decisions as illogical, he was both highly popular and legally successful.
To him were daily submitted the numberless questions of mineral ownership which arose in such a community as ours; a gathering of men from every country under Heaven, where each, by chance or choice, had come to occupy under certain written and unwritten laws, so limited a portion of the earth’s surface that it was measured by feet. Under it might be the hidden treasure, the reward of a lost youth—a ruined life—the mere rumour of which had brought the greater number of us so far over the main, across so many a weary mile of wood and wold.
To decide equitably and rapidly, to maintain unswervingly, and to enforce rigidly, the decisions arrived at after the hearing of such evidence as was forthcoming, required natural gifts which few men possessed. But ‘Billy’ Blake had been cast by Nature at his birth for the ‘role’ of a chieftain, and most eminently qualified was he for the part which he was called upon to play.
At one time his decisions were given in the modest structure which served as the court-house, wherein were tried daily such offences as opposed the statute law of the land. At another they were delivered as he sat on horseback amid an angry crowd of a thousand excited men. But in no instance did the surroundings make the slightest difference in the despotic tone of utter finality which clothed them. Men spoke of his acts and words with bated breath. The commissioner had ‘decided’ this or that point of mining law. He had turned this man out of one of the richest claims on ‘the field’ and put another into possession of it—and a fortune. He had sentenced Towney Joe to six months’ imprisonment with hard labour for stealing five shillings’ worth of wash-dirt. He had threatened Red Dick that, if he heard of his beating his wife again he should have twelve months within stone walls. He had told Ned White, upon that worthy making sarcastic reference to the commissioner’s uniform coat as a fortunate protection to the wearer, to put up his hands, and dismounting, had then and there so ‘straightened’ him ‘inside of three rounds,’ that Ned hadn’t a word to say for himself, and was ashamed to show his face for a fortnight afterwards.
On the other hand, when Jim Black’s wife had come crying to him, saying her husband hadn’t the price of a miner’s right, and it was very hard because he knew where there was some good ground, and he dursn’t put a pick in it, because any one with a ‘right’ could take it away from him, he had sworn at Jim for a lazy blackguard, who was always trying to rob the Government, and declared, if he caught him digging without a miner’s right he would send him to gaol straightway and then tossed a sovereign to the sobbing woman, telling her to take out a miner’s right for her husband that very day, and to keep the balance for the children.
Every kind and variety of legend was current about the commissioner. He was the ogre of the fairy tale, the good knight of the romances, the wicked baron of the middle ages, the pitiless official—all by turns.
The great pro-consul had been away on leave of absence when I and my comrades first came to Yatala; so we did not immediately meet. But daily, so much, and such extravagant reference was made to his acts and deeds, opinions and manners, that all unconsciously we looked forward, as did, apparently, the larger part of the population, to the momentous period when the Captain should come back.
In the meantime the interest of the dwellers and delvers of Yatala was divided by other social and official celebrities, some of whom were sufficiently characteristic.
Next to Zeus, the all-powerful, came the Inspector of Police, Mr. Merlin, an astute, fine-edged, courteously combative personage, who always reminded me of a Toledo blade, habited in the dress of the period. An animated rapier—if such a type of humanity be consistent with natural laws. Precisely that weapon and no other, being difficult to confront, to evade, to handle, or even to hold scabbardless. Only really innocuous when securely sheathed and placed on the shelf. There was little overt aggressiveness about him. He was the least egotistical of men, inasmuch as whatever ideas of superiority to his surroundings he might have cherished he rarely expressed them. The exploits and adventures of which he may have been the hero he never narrated; accomplishments he may have been the hero he never narrated; accomplishments he may have possessed, and did in several notably excel, but he never alluded to them. His reserve was impenetrable; his caustic though courteous manner invariably the same. Yet few there were of the Yatala community who did not acknowledge pleasure in his society, coupled with a slight infusion of fear. There was an involuntary dread among the miners in his presence, lest he might rake up from the limbo of forgotten sins some deeply compromising charge. Men respected him, liked him, but, above everything, they feared him; and, in consequence of this peculiar feeling he could walk through a crowd of five thousand men, and bear off a prisoner (if necessary) like a hawk appropriating a pigeon from a dovecot.
To him was chietly owing what few British-born people could have realised without actual personal knowledge, the extraordinary state of order and good government which prevailed in our singular community. There was the utmost personal freedom and independence, as enjoyed in all Her Majesty’s colonies, without lawlessness or licence. The reckless bullies of the Californian mining towns were as impossible here as Criflins and Enchanters. The great crowd of waifs and strays was sufficiently intelligent to know the laws, and apparently had reached a moral standard sufficiently high to obey them, and to yield uncomplainingly.
Our life, albeit so far unsuccessful, laborious, and monotonous, as some might have termed it, was not necessarily dull. Let it be remembered that we had the magician Youth on our side. Thus it rarely lacked interest, variety, even enjoyment.
For was not the population itself one ceaseless, never-ending mine of observation? An unending wonder-book to him who had eyes to see and ears to hear, who, moreover, possessed the key to the cipher, and so read much that was sealed and closely locked to others.
Who were the men, the women, evidently gently born and nurtured, some of whom were daily encountered, performing the humblest tasks amid the rudest surroundings? Was there not material for scores of romances in this privilege of companionship with them, which was our daily common lot?
When some careless miner, or even a half-tamed bushman or ordinary labourer turned digger suddenly unearthed gold, which would have almost sufficed for a king’s ransom, was there not novelty and romance in this? in beholding the human grub swiftly metamorphosed into the butterfly—sometimes awkwardly fluttering amid his brilliant juniors, at other times soaring with adjustable wing, as if born to the inheritance of air and light?
For the rest, albeit that our lot was that of daily labour, it was such a measure of exertion as came easily within the scope of the strong sinews and muscles of youth. There was in it nothing undignified, and the possible triumph at any given hour of any day glorified the drudgery which might, nay, daily did, for some comrade or other, end in splendour undreamed of and dazzling.
Our habitudes, maugre the daily labour, were distinctly those of gentlemen. The Major and I rose from our plain pallets to bathe in the neighbouring streamlet, or to ‘tub’ if such water-course was not within reach, as regularly as when we lived in England. Our working clothes were of necessity plain and coarse, but the work over, or the holiday afternoon having arrived, on which all miners, however good their ‘prospects,’ make a rule of declining work, our dress was not widely different from what it would have been in a country town in England. Let all idea of long-haired unkempt ruggedness be rejected as the vogue of Australian miners. Even Joe and Cyrus wore their hair clipped to a most soldierly shortness of staple, as, indeed—barbers abounding, and doing a most lucrative business—do by far the greater majority of the miners everywhere.
I had, of course, arrived in Australia believing that I had only to establish myself upon any known and accredited goldfield to unearth a fortune without delay. Even in unknown and non-accredited regions I had visions of miraculous finds; visions of ledges of gold-bearing rock and nugget-strewed gravel floated before my eyes waking and sleeping. My limited knowledge of geology was pressed into the service of my imagination. I knew, of course, the leading formations in which gold chiefly occurred. Such knowledge would surely aid me in the discovery which was to mean home and friends and native land now rapturously regained, with the angel of my dreams, radiant at my return, as her celestial prototype.
Soon after I had fairly commenced my practical course of fortune-digging these flattering hopes vanished. I found gold-mining to be like any other profession, composed mainly of hard and unrelieved drudgery. A living was certainly to be made by it in a general way, barring accidents, sickness, or exceptional bad luck. The prizes were tangible and patent. But like those of all professions, or even lotteries, they were so few and far between, as merely to suffice to stimulate the crowd of unsuccessful toilers, who wore out their lives, their hopes, their strength, not unfrequently their morals and reputations, in the delusive quest.
Among the miners, though the community comprises and ever will comprise some of the best and noblest examples of manhood, were many who had suffered grievously from rude association and the corroding effects of disappointment. These men had accepted their destiny. They were life-long miners. The salvation of an exceptional find could alone restore them to the social surroundings they had once and for ever quitted. Working patiently while need was, they had lost the power to resist the temptation to spend in aimless dissipation the temporary gains which from time to time they secured. ‘A good rise’ was the signal for a week’s revelry. Debts were paid; all necessary repairs to the mining requisites made. The remainder of the money received for their gold was wasted in excess.
In a few weeks the ex-foreign office clerk or university graduate was to be seen with a serge shirt and clay-stained clothes, patiently sinking, driving, sluicing, or reefing as the case might be—as fixed to his endless search as though he had been a gnome imprisoned in the depths of the treasure mountains of the Hartz.
We did not take Cyrus’s advice. It would, financially, have been better for us if we had. But, of course, that could not be foreseen. If we knew for a certainty where the gold was not, we should probably be able to point unerringly to where it was, which would lead to the most astounding results, especially if the knowledge was disseminated simultaneously. The evil of this universal promulgation of knowledge was exemplified in the following digging episode.
Every one knows, that is, every one who has been a few years on a goldfield and carefully read up the regulations, omitting those which have been repealed, from time to time, that, when a ‘frontage claim’ is blocked off, that is, marked off as a permanent parallelogram, instead of being a ‘chose in action,’ or progressively developing mining tenement, any one can take up or seize upon the ‘block off it,’ or desirable section of land outside of the said frontage claim, by simply putting in four pegs before any one else.
Now the frontage claim or section upon the lead, or ancient river bed, was known to be rich because it had been worked, the gold extracted and turned into cash fortnightly, so that a very fair notion could be gathered of its richness. As, however, the shareholders were limited to an allotment of two hundred and forty feet in length, being at the rate of forty feet a man, along the course of the lead, it followed that the ‘block,’ or so much of the auriferous stratum as lay outside of this two hundred and forty feet by three hundred, would be tolerably rich also. The shareholders in the claim I allude to, No. 5 Sinbad’s Valley, had made £8000 a man (there were six of them) in less than as many months. This I know of my own knowledge, and can prove if required. One of them was a Cornishman. Just before the claim was worked out he said to me—
‘Harry, what do you think? I’m going home to Trevenna on Monday.’
‘Are you, cousin Jack?’ said I. ‘I think you’re a wise man. Have you written to tell them all?’
‘Not a line,’ said he. ‘They think I’m dead or lost. How they’ll stare. I don’t think any of ’em ever saw a ten pound note in their lives. To-morrow’s the last day’s work as I shall do. Go by the coach Monday, and off by the overland mail steamer as sails from Sydney on Thursday next. Won’t that be a holiday trip, eh mate?’
‘It will, indeed,’ said I, rather regretfully, and I am afraid, envying the poor fellow in my heart.
He was right. The next day was the last day on which he ever worked; but not in the sense in which he intended it. In lifting a heavy petrified fossil tree trunk which the waters of that long buried primeval stream had rolled down its golden sands, he overstrained himself. On Sunday night he was a corpse; and on Monday, the very day he was to have taken the first stage of his trip home, we followed him to his long home, in the spacious newly enclosed cemetery, already commencing to be thickly sprinkled with newly-dug graves. Later on I saw the cheque for seven thousand some hundreds of pounds (less expenses and the Curator of Intestate Estates’ fees), which was remitted to the relatives in curious, old fashioned, steep-streeted, pebble-paved Trevenna.
Well, the adjacent lot to the highly-satisfactory ‘golden-hole claim,’ as the miners phrased it, was to be had for the pegging-out first. The pegging-out, that is, the placing of four stout sticks, one at each corner, was easy enough. It was the ‘first’ business, the priority, which was difficult, if not impossible, of attainment.
The whole field was aware that at some time, not earlier than six o’clock A.M. on a certain morning, the shareholders of No. 5 Sinbad’s Valley would mark out their claim for good and all. One second after which operation any alert persons might put in four pegs, one at each corner of the coveted adjoining block claim, and so hold the ground.
On the night before the battle, five hundred men, by curious coincidence, bivouacked on the ground, each man with a sharpened stick and gold-sharpened determination to secure a corner of the Aladdin-glorious treasure-chamber.
Precisely as the dawn’s fresh pearly gray succeeded the misty cloud-wrack of the waning night, four shareholders of the frontage claim suddenly appeared with prepared stakes and marked out their carefully-measured earth-portion, none daring to interfere with them; but the instant that their task was completed there was a rush like the advanced guard of a charging regiment of grenadiers. The confusion which resulted defies description.
At each corner of the coveted block stood a couple of score of men, each wildly and frantically endeavouring to place his particular stake as near two of the frontage pegs as possible, and as accurately opposite and the regular distance. Men fought and struggled, cursed and struck and fell, as each raised high his stake or peg and strove to hammer it in securely. A few intimate friends or joint-operators with the frontage party were seen to appear on the scene suddenly, only a few minutes after the marking-off and essay to occupy. These were usually supposed to have ‘the office,’ or special information from the shareholders, and to ‘stand in’ with them; but these in their turn were swept forward and over in the mad rush of the eager crowd. For five minutes indescribably wild confusion prevailed. Then the crowd sullenly parted. Certain pegs and stakes were seen planted, sheaflike, in each corner, and the ‘blocking-off of No. 5 Sinbad’ was over. The result of this attempt to symbolise priority of occupation, by means of pegs or stakes, possibly among the most ancient landmarks, has been accurately retained by the photographic art. ‘The apparatus can’t lie,’ and a wandering artist, of that persuasion, attended the performance and faithfully reproduced both the pegs and their owners.
Mr. Commissioner Blake had no easy task, it will be seen. He was only required, in the exercise of his duty to take evidence and decide as to which four pegs had been placed in the corners of the block-claim off No. 5, first after the shareholders of No. 5, and, having decided, to place those persons to whom the pegs belonged in possession of the claim.
He did what he could. He rode down to the place attended by two troopers and a dozen dogs, and narrowly inspected the pegs. He even counted them, making one hundred and sixty-two in all.
‘Who put in the first peg in the north-east corner?’ he demanded.
‘No, I did; ’twas me, Captain.’
‘Me plenty plant ’m that one waddy,’ said a civilised aboriginal.
‘I put in first peg, Massa, sure as there’s snakes in Virginny,’ sung out old man Ned.
‘No, no, my peg; I thrust it in with this meri,’ yells Maori Jack, brandishing his war club, and showing his sharpened anthropophagic teeth.
‘C’est le mien, c’est le mien, sacrés cochons que vous êtes, sortons,’ grinds out a Frenchman.
‘Das ist mein numero ein—ein—ein,’ growls a German, ‘haben sie der fader gesehn? er ist todten—spitzbuben—Donner un’ blitzen.’
‘Where are you shovin’ to?’ grumbles a —— but no, it is unnecessary to specify the nationality of the last speaker; ‘d—n you all, you may take my share, if we ever reach within a hundred mile of Wingadee agin. I’m full up of these here blank diggings. Let me get out of this blank crowd. Call this digging? I say it’s wild cattle meeting. I’ll cut it while the play is good.’
‘D—n the whole lot of you,’ roars out the irascible Commissioner, charging right among the excited crowd. Why the blazes didn’t you come and have it out earlier in the day. Get home, all of you, and mind that not a soul stirs the surface till I give leave. How the devil am I to tell who is the first man? I know no more than Adam. But, anyhow, I shall reserve judgment until to-morrow morning. Come up to the camp at ten o’clock and I will there and then deliver my decision. In the meantime, no one touches the ground with axe, shovel, or pick, or I shall know the reason why.’
On the following morning, as the Commissioner sat in his office, a small building, with a room for himself and one for his clerk, a back room and a passage, a large crowd gradually collected before the door. At ten o’clock precisely the office door was thrown open, and the Commissioner’s clerk, standing therein, informed the crowd that the Captain was inside, and would receive the names of every man who had put in a peg in the block off No. 5 Sinbad’s Valley.
His orders were these. Each applicant was to enter the passage by the back door. As he passed through his name would be taken down on a slip of paper by him, the clerk, and placed in a ballot-box, to be dealt with by the Commissioner afterwards according to his sovereign will and pleasure. A cheer was given as this announcement was made, and a string of men commenced to pass through the back door and out of the front, leaving their names in the course of transit. In half an hour all was completed. A hundred and sixty men, forty applicants for each peg, for only four men could be shareholders, awaited the fiat of the Commissioner. At a respectful distance a motley crowd of three or four times the number regarded them attentively.
This being completed, the Captain appeared at the doorway, and, amid loud cheering, commenced a brief oration. He said that he had given this particular case great consideration, that the confusion which had occurred was in consequence of the Government having framed some new regulations without submitting them to the commissioners. This one in particular—with regard to frontage-block claims—was a d—d stupid one, it seemed to him. He had no hesitation in saying so [loud cheering]; but however that might be, it was the law! And, of course, he would take care that it was rigidly obeyed.
He would now proceed to select the names of the four men to whom he should adjudge the ownership of the block off No. 5. He should do it by lot, as they would agree it was totally impossible to sift the evidence or arrive at any conclusion by ordinary methods, in the case of a hundred and sixty pegs, all put down about the same time. He was not going to try, at any rate.
‘Mr. Watkins,’ this to the clerk, ‘would you please to bring forward the ballot-box. I turn away my head and select this ticket at random; [reading] it contains the name of James Grant. The second, taken out similarly, is Patrick Mahony. The third is that of—a—Ewen Campbell. And the fourth is that of—a—John Smith. I hereby adjudge these four men to be the legal occupiers and shareholders of the block off No. 5 Sinbad’s Valley. God save the Queen!’
The crowd cheered. The one hundred and fifty-six disappointed claimants said never a word, and the four men named received peaceable possession of the claim, which turned out a very rich one, and which they worked out to the last ounce. One man, whom I saw afterwards, bought a snug farm with his share of the gold; and I visited him in a neat freestone cottage which he had erected.