The Miner’s Right

Chapter IV

Rolf Boldrewood

WE WORKED hard, doggedly, persistently, and yet all was unavailing.

We ‘hung on,’ as the miners said, to our claim, driving and delving with pick and shovel, through the long hot days, or in the silent dark cold nights. No luck, no gold. Having no money was not the worst of it. Our balance on the wrong side had run up with the storekeeper, who trusted us to considerably over a hundred pounds. A large sum, when it is considered that our assets were almost nil, or such as, if sold, would have made a very slight impression on the account.

We became unhappy and despondent, more especially Cyrus Yorke, whose ‘I told you so from the beginning,’ was daily more aggressive and hard to bear. Our storekeeper friend, John Mangrove, did not seem to care so much. He had ‘followed the diggings’ for many a year. He and his smart, bustling, business-like wife were quite used to giving fabulous amounts of credit, to what they termed ‘an honest crowd,’ meaning a party of men who might be relied upon to pay when their luck turned. Mrs. Mangrove, indeed, laughed at our undiggerlike despondency when we came up one Saturday night and vowed we would not take some beef and flour for our married mate, having no money, and having that morning decided to ‘jack up’ or thoroughly abandon work at our present claim.

‘We must go and fossick for a bit now,’ I said, ‘just for enough to make the pot boil; but we won’t take any more of your “tucker,” Mrs. Mangrove, without paying.’

‘Bother the paying!’ said the buxom, cheery woman, ‘we shall get our money some time or other; but how are you and the Major to fossick, or anything else, without a scrap to eat. You must and shall take your rations till times mend. Luck always turns if you stick to your fight like men. Don’t tell me you’re down in the mouth. You’ve got to work till you make a ‘rise,’ for my sake, and how can you work without tucker?’

‘All right, Mrs. Mangrove,’ said the Major; ‘you know what is good for us. We are your boys, you know. Can’t you lay us on to anything?’

‘Well, as you’re good boys, I don’t mind letting you hear of a little whisper I caught this morning of a rush out at the Eight Mile, that they say is going to be a regular fizzer. It is called “The Last Stake,” and there are only half a dozen claims marked out. You’d be in time to-morrow morning early. I saw some awfully rich specimens that Tim Daly had.’

‘Specimens are deceptive,’ I say; ‘but we will mark out four men’s ground there to-morrow, only two need work till it’s payable. Cyrus and Joe will go splitting or fencing until times improve a bit to pay the tucker-bill.’

‘All right,’ said Mrs. Mangrove, ‘nothing like facing it. My old man and me was down to half-a-crown, and hardly a pair of boots between us once at Eaglehawk; but we dropped on to a shallow patch, and I puddled it in a washtub, didn’t I, John? We made eighty pound out of that patch in two days.’

‘You was allers a good ’un to work at a pinch, I will say that,’ growled John, ‘though you’re tongue do run a bit fast sometimes.’

‘If I didn’t do a bit of blowing we might shut up shop,’ she answered; ‘you know that very well, Master John. Here, Harry, take this bottle of whisky with you; you and the Major want something besides tea just now. You’re looking dreadful thin of late, and you’ll be laid up with the fever if you don’t mind. Give that Mrs. Yorke of yours a sip, it won’t hurt her, a small drop. She’s got a precious soft-headed husband, I can see.’

‘You see a many things,’ said John, ‘can you see it’s past twelve o’clock; the sergeant’ll be turning everybody out directly. I shall shut up. Good-night, mates.’

After this interesting colloquy, by which we felt much cheered and invigorated, we went home and indulged in a glass of whisky punch each, which did not demoralise us much, not having touched anything for a month previously. We also insisted upon Mrs. Yorke joining us; she and Cyrus had not gone to bed. So we drank success to our next start, and slept very soundly afterwards.

The stars were in the sky when the Major and I quietly arose and wended our way out to the locale of The Last Stake Quartz Reef, alluded to by Mrs. Mangrove, and walking the four miles briskly reached it soon after daylight. Early as was the hour, others were there bound upon the same errand. We could see where the ledge of white silicate rock had been bared and workings commenced with a view of following it down. Carefully noticing the direction of the reef, we placed our two pegs, denoting two hundred feet in length along the line of the reef, and giving a title to the full width of one hundred yards on each side of the base line, whatever that might be. Once so placed, if only a minute before the next coming, this act constituted a perfect mining title to all gold within such defined boundaries. The law allowed three days grace for occupation and efficient work to take place. If such work were not commenced within three days, any other miners might summarily take possession of or ‘jump’ the claim. Wending our way back to breakfast, there being no necessity to take any other measures at present, we explained the position of affairs to our fellow shareholders. I took the initiative from habit, and laid great stress on Mrs. Mangrove’s kindness, which had enabled us to begin again in a respectable and promising manner, instead of having to take to fossicking like so many ‘hatters’—solitary miners. Both the Major and I considered The Last Stake Reef to look like ’a good show;’ but there were expenses and of course food for the whole party. These we should not get out of the reef for some time. And we were all averse to sponging on kind Mr. Mangrove more than we could help. I, therefore, proposed that Cyrus and Joe should take a job of bush work, the wages of which—such labour being very well paid just then—would suffice to placate the butcher and baker for the whole party, until the reef turned payable, which it was pretty sure to do. If not, we were only where we were before.

‘That’ll do,’ said Joe; ‘I was just a longing like for a bit of farm work this fine sharp weather. I ha’ had such a spell of driving that I’m regular cramped. It was pretty wet down there, too, and I’m afeared of the rheumatiz. I saw Mr. Banks this morning, and he offered Cyrus and me half a mile of fencing at good prices.’

‘They just was good prices,’ said Cyrus; ‘I only wish I could have tumbled across ’em down the country, I’d never have come digging—would I, little woman?’

‘I’m sure I don’t know, Cyrus,’ she said, ‘you were never very contented, and if you had’nt come here, you’d have gone somewheres else. But I do hope we’ll make a rise on this reef. We’ve been lower lately than ever I remember since the party was a party.’

‘We should have been lower down still, Mrs. Yorke,’ said the Major, ‘if it had not been for these capital scones of yours, and the way your good cookery saves the rations. I suppose it’s because Cyrus has such a tremendous appetite that you were first driven to economise by method and high art.’

‘If I’ve got a good twist, I can do a day’s work,’ said the Hawkesbury giant, opening his chest and raising his great arms. ‘But we’d better get away, Joe, and see Mr. Banks about this fencing. I’d be sorry if he let it to any other chaps. The Major and Harry can begin and rig their stage at the reef. I don’t think much of reefs. I believe in the alluvial myself.’

Then it was all settled. Next day we had cut our logs, rigged our stage and windlass, and were soon ‘sinking for the reef,’ which, whether volatilised from a lower chemical centre or laterally secreted, was not visible on the surface where we had put down our pegs.

In a few days we ‘struck it,’ followed it down, discovered small specks of gold almost invisible to the naked eye, and at the first crushing were rewarded with a handsome dividend.

We thought our fortunes were made; we put on two wages men, and worked with renewed energy. The next, and the next, dividends were good; but one dreadful day it became apparent that the reef had ‘pinched out,’ become gradually smaller and more difficult to find. Finally, it disappeared altogether.

There was the alternative of sinking perhaps another hundred or two hundred feet, on the chance of its being struck at a greater depth, and ‘carrying the gold better as it went deeper.’ But this style of operation was only suited for men with capital. We resolved not to risk the little we had.

Altogether we got about a thousand pounds for our share of the gold in little more than two months. That, of course, was not so bad. Out of this the claim was in debt to Mr. Mangrove about two hundred and fifty pounds, which was religiously paid up at once, thus leaving nearly two hundred pounds per man. Each, probably, had some few personal and private debts, which had to be liquidated. A certain refitting of wardrobes was imperative; other matters, too, had become attenuated during our longish term of ill-luck. A few presents to friends who had sympathised with us in our distress were also thought suitable. Eventually, the experienced goldfield’s resident will have no difficulty in understanding that forty or fifty pounds each was about the outside amount which remained in our pockets, after a week’s holiday and final settlement of affairs.

This statement but too often correctly describes the course of a miner’s life even when there is no overt dissipation. His very virtues, his truthfulness, energy, and good faith aid him in extravagance, so to speak, for they enlarge his facilities for credit, which are so elastic while health and strength last that he can get as deeply into debt as he pleases.

When he does meet with a fair slice of luck, such as I have referred to, the greater part of his gains are swept away in repayment, while the balance remaining is so small that, to his easy mind, it seems hardly worth saving. ‘Plenty more where that came from’ is the most popular mining motto, which is true enough in a sense, but not always easy to reduce to practical application.

I had seen and encountered so much in my own person of this tantalising see-saw of apparent prosperity and real poverty that I had insensibly commenced to be drawn into the fatal vortex of indifferentism which is so apt to characterise the habitual miner, from whatever class originally drawn. I was beginning to be satisfied with the periodical intervals of ease and comparative luxury, to be more and more incapable of making any sustained effort to free myself from rude and unworthy surroundings. The fortune which I had hoped for, how much more accurately could I now gauge the slender probability of my winning it! The return to dear England, the union with my long-cherished darling, the transfigured angel of my dreams. How much more nearly this approached, with every flying minute, to the faint hopes of Heaven, and misty realisations of eternal bliss which visit the average believer.

In my despondent moods, when, after weeks of severe labour the end seemed no nearer, I allowed my spirits to droop to the lowest depths of despair. Why had I ever permitted my thoughts to range to such mad impossibilities? Had aught but the insane heedlessness of youth caused my fancy to soar so high, only to fall with more stunning shock? Was there the most distant hope of my ever realising ten or twenty thousand pounds by ordinary mining, with which to present myself in the course of the coming year to the Squire, and to claim the ecstatic reward? Midsummer, moonstruck madness the whole! No greater expectation, truly, as it now appeared to me, was there than if I were engaged in digging potatoes.

And yet such prizes were to be had, and did occasionally, at Yatala, fall to the grasp of the lucky—chiefly undeserving adventurers.

While I was in this undecided and, above all, agonising state of mind, I received a letter from Ruth. We had not been forbidden, in so many words, to correspond, but it had been explained to me by the Squire that while matters remained in such an extremely uncertain and precarious state, he thought I should agree with him that a regular correspondence would be inconsistent, etc., that, of course, he left it to me, and so on. The consequence of which was that, appreciating his consideration, I refrained from pouring out my heart as I otherwise should have done, and merely wrote, from time to time, certain matter-of-fact epistles. In them I stated my plans, described my place of residence, and gave my reasons for expecting good things in the way of gold discovery.

The hue of despair which had commenced to pervade my life of late had commenced to tinge my letters, doubtless, and so awakened a feeling of irrepressible tenderness and compassion in that dear heart that knew but one deep, still-flowing current of self-sacrificing love. Whatever the cause, I one day received from Mrs. Mangrove, who also officiated as postmistress, amid her other multifarious avocations, a letter, bearing the delicate characters so indelibly traced upon my heart.

‘A letter from home, Harry, English postmark, come from your sister, your mammy, or your sweetheart. Don’t be angry now; if you’ll give me the address, I’ll write and tell her what a good boy you are. Not like some of the swells here, who are the biggest rapscallions out, instead of setting a good example to us poor ignorant lower-class mullocks, eh, John?’

‘What are you blowin’ about now, old gal,’ said the sententious John, removing the pipe from his mouth. ‘I don’t know about “mullock.” God made all men free and equal, and though anybody can see as Harry and the Major are regular right-down swells, and so far and away ahead of us, what does Bobbie Burns say—“Who hangs his head for honest poverty”—and settera?’

‘Come, you’re not so poor, nor over and above honest either, John,’ retorted his better half—‘that is, if you get a chance, and was dead sure of not being bowled out. It’s I that knows you—still there’s worse on the diggings. And now, here’s your letter, Harry, and if you’d like to step into my back parlour and read it in comfort—there’s no one in there, nor won’t be till the Mildorah mail comes in. Take your beer with you.’

I accepted the offer of my worthy friend and banker; so, sitting down upon the sofa and locking the door, I abandoned myself thoroughly to the half-painful thrill of memory ere I commenced to translate into half-whispered speech the loved and familiar characters.

Ere I opened the letter I gazed long upon the fateful scroll. How much of my former life came back to me; how sharp the contrast appeared with my present existence! I saw myself as I once was, how differently lodged and tended. The old Court, with its look of immemorial stateliness and reposeful comfort that now seemed luxury undreamed of, more than half forgotten in the rude surroundings to which I had insensibly adapted myself. And amid them my lot was fated to be cast, for how many years yet? for my lifetime it might well be! for how could I endure to return an unsuccessful, disappointed man—I that had so obstinately severed the links that bound me to the home of my youth—the position to which I had been born. I had seen men as gently nurtured, better educated, aye, with far higher attainments, after brave battling with hopeless odds, sink gradually year by year, yet more deeply into the slough of low companionship and sensual indulgence. They had despaired of returning ever to the dim, far-off world of their lost heritage; had been contented thus to wear out the days of a despised, self-contemning existence. If such things happened to them, why not to me? I was alone. My long pent-up dread of the worst for a moment overpowered me. I leaned my head upon my hands before the unread letter, and the hot tears, never before shed since childhood, rained down upon the tawdry table-cover.

The unwonted passion aroused me. I brushed the evidences of weakness from my eyes, and, rising to my sense of manhood, raised the precious evidence of woman’s fidelity. I well knew what tender assurance I should find of fondly-cherished, brightly-burning love—unalterable faith, unswerving holy confidence. Yet, how many instances had I known where men, having trusted as deeply and loyally, had been heartlessly deceived. I had watched life-wrecks which had dated from the receipt of just such another letter in outward seeming. They, with delicate, deadly strokes, had yet rung the knell of hope—of faith in woman’s sacred truth. Such was not to be my doom, whatever else the Fates, which I had commenced to dread, might have in store for Hereward Pole. How I drank in the sweet sense of the precious, priceless symbols—thus dumbly that spake—

‘MY OWN DEAREST, EVER DEAREST HEREWARD—Your last letter, written from Yatala, roused me from a fit of depression which had crept over me, I hardly know why; perhaps, from its being so long since I had received one. I re-read it before I could do more than gather that you were well, and still bravely striving to discover that terrible, delusive gold, which seems to be such a will-o’-the-wisp—in spite of the golden tales which come by every mail from your far land. I was unspeakably cheered by this bare knowledge, and shall never fear gloomy presentiments again. But I had had so many. I read—for I read all the papers I can get hold of from Australia—about terrible mining accidents, till I was half unconsciously in the habit of connecting my beloved with the dangers and the deaths that seemed so common, and little regarded. I pictured you suddenly overwhelmed by a fall of earth in your subterranean abode, sometimes blown up by an explosion, like those awful ones in coal mines. What a dreadful one was that in Wales the other day. We happened to be at Llanberis, for a change for poor mother, who has been ailing lately. I went down and saw the poor women, whose sons and husbands, brothers and (alas!) lovers, had been reft from them in an instant. How many forms of grief were there. Now, I could sympathise with them, unlike many who merely viewed it as one of the far-away calamities that we read or hear of, and turn from to the next excitement or frivolous pleasure. My aching heart found some relief in aiding and comforting those whom I could reach. I felt in a strange way cheered and lightened when my task was done. But oh! how unspeakable was the relief when I saw your dear hand-writing again, and knew that you were safe and strong and hopeful as ever, though, so far, unsuccessful.

‘Then, as I, for the sixth time, devoured your letter, I discovered a desponding tone in your expressions, that I had never before noticed. You did not speak with your old gallant disregard of present ill-luck, and hope for future fortune, as you used to do. My woman’s quickness divined a kind of dull resignation setting in; a more than usual dwelling upon your rashness in quitting England, joined to a deeper regret for having, as you say, induced me “to link my life with that of a beggar and an exile—to forfeit the paradise of my childhood’s home for the accursed outer-world of labour and privation, which would be my portion if I followed you.”

‘All this, dearest, I look upon as sinful disbelief in God’s goodness; besides which, to speak of an infinitely less worthy matter, it is very wicked of you to doubt my love. That you possess “once and for ever.” It may not be all that you fondly fancy, but such as it is, it is yours—all yours—while life lasts, and beyond the grave, if there we retain the feelings which animate our souls on earth. Perhaps I am saying more than I could ever express if we were nearer, but, separated by so vast a distance, we may be doomed never again to hear each other’s voices, I feel as if I must give expression to every thought of my heart, lest you might die and never know how its every pulse beats for you.

‘After seeing the stony despair of some of these poor women’s faces at Pent-y-glas; after hearing their dreadful agonising shrieks, as one after another of the dead miners was carried up from the pit mouth and laid in his cottage; after witnessing the frantic delight with which the rescued were welcomed back to life, joy that sometimes threatened like to death, you must pardon me for believing mere want of success to be a small thing in true lovers’ eyes, compared with those ghastly realities.

‘Want of success, indeed! Why, what does it mean, that my high-hearted Hereward should not look it in the face, and frown it down, as of old. Have you not life, and love, and health, and strength? that stalwart form? that steady eye? When these fail it will be time enough to despond, to retract, to despair, to lose faith in God and man.

‘But you will do none of these, my own darling. You will still work; you will still pray. Remember that there is another year, yet untried, before us, during which the reward of all your long labour and heroic self-denial may be found. My prayers may be answered, and your work, which according to the good old monkish legend, is also prayer, because done in a good spirit, will bring its reward. Keep up your heart for both our sakes—for the love’s sake which is your Ruth’s life. When that time is finished, come home to the old land, and be sure if you can quell that stubborn pride of yours—do I not love you the better for it—my dear old father will welcome you as a son. But if you will not or cannot come, I will never upbraid you, and more—so prepare yourself—no power on earth shall then keep me from coming to you, to follow your steps in weal or woe, so long as we both shall live.

‘I have written you a woman’s letter. It is the longest I ever sent. But I did feel so lonely and wretched. It has eased my heart. Would that it could lighten yours; perhaps it may. God keep and bless you, my own beloved.—Yours ever, in weal or woe, in the old world or the new.

‘RUTH ALLERTON.’            

I rose from the perusal of the heaven-sent letter an altered man. I pressed it to my lips, to my heart. Then I vowed silently, yet solemnly, to God, to work and deny myself from aught but needful rest and sustenance, until the time was expired, for her sweet sake—the best, the tenderest, the truest of mortal women, for her sweet sake—the angel that had stirred the dreary pool of doubt. I was healed; of that I had no doubt. Should I ever be suffered to thank her by my life?

‘My word! I’ll go bail there was a bank draft in that letter,’ said Mrs. Mangrove, coming in suddenly; ‘you look so cheered up by it. Must be good news, or something like it. I thought you were going to jack up at the claim when you came in, or had got the fever, or something. But now you look like a different chap altogether.’

‘I am a different man,’ I said. ‘I believe my luck’s going to change, Mrs. Mangrove; and if you and John will always back us right out, I believe we shall make our pile yet, and you will have a slice of it.’

‘Never mind that,’ said the good-natured dame. ‘If you take all your stores from us, and pay your bill, that’ll be enough for John and me. Our profits are pretty smart. We only want to get our goods off. But you and the Major and your other mates, you’re a good crowd to work; I will say that for you; stick to those new prospectors. There’s something in that lead, I’ll go bail. There’s no fear but what you’ll drop on to it by and by. John and I ain’t afraid to speculate a hundred or two; we’ve not followed the diggings five years next Christmas to be afraid of giving a bit of credit to rale out-and-out good working men. No, nor five hundred at the back o’ that; you’re right for anything you want, tools, expenses, powder and fuse, as long as we last out. Now, you’d better have a whisky, and get home before the moon sets. Those holes is nasty things to be walking through when it’s dark.’

I declined the refreshment, but thanked the generous-hearted creature with a warmth that made her and her husband exhibit signs of distress. I then made off down the brightly-lighted street, and following a narrow but well-worn track which threaded the hundreds of shafts, wide, dark-mounthed in the moonlight, like silent monsters watching for their prey, soon reached the somewhat isolated spot, where our tiny camp was situated.

My mates were all asleep. I was not sorry for that. I was so filled with the deep pervading excitement which the reading of my thrice-blessed letter had caused in me, that I should have with difficulty compelled myself to interchange the ordinary courtesies of conversation. I was as a man who had found a huge and hidden treasure. I could no longer concern myself with the poor coins and cares of daily life, until I had had time to reflect upon my joy and good fortune.

‘How good, how pure she is; what more than mortal fidelity has marked my Ruth’s conduct,’ I thought, as I lay down on my humble couch. ‘How many girls in her position would have caught at the first excuse to free themselves from an engagement that must involve poverty and privation—that might even end in exile; and yet she had kept her faith, had been true to the vow made on the well-remembered terrace, as we stood looking over woodland vales. How had I deserved such fidelity. Still, there was something in a man’s strength, a man’s hope and struggle for success. She should have her reward, if a single-handed swordsman could hew his way to success and glory. There was a year of the precious granted time to spare now. Perhaps the casuarina might not have changed her gloomy filamental raiment once more before the tide would have turned—the fulfilment would have been ‘assured.’

The next day was Sunday. The Major and Joe had been on the night-shift; I had, therefore, all the day before me to dream over my last found happiness, to permit my mind to wander over the past, to hope and resolve for the future. No mining, no work of any sort, was carried on on the Sabbath at Yatala. An utterly unbroken stillness reigned over the whole strangely assorted camp on the sacred day. In some countries such would not have been the case; men would have pleased themselves as to the course they took. But here, the whole sentiment of the place was as distinctly English as if the concourse of adventurers had been located in Surrey or Kent. The Australian colonies are not only in many ways contented to be English in act, manner, and thought. They are the English of a century back in many, in perhaps the highest embodiments of the national character. And there was no more thought in Yatala of Sunday work, or openly-avowed Sunday dissipation than of a carnival in Glasgow. Moreover, such labour was against the law of the land, which as I before remarked, was by no means suffered to remain a dead letter at Yatala. Under 29 Carolus II. c. vii. sec. 7, an information would have been laid by the sergeant with exceeding promptitude; and the fine would have followed with mathematical precision of effect after cause.

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