The Miner’s Right

Chapter V

Rolf Boldrewood

NEXT DAY being Sunday, we breakfasted late, and by no means uncomfortably. When miners are provided with provisions at all, they are good of their kind. Fresh beefsteaks, grilled to perfection, and served up hot by our miraculous cook and good fairy Mrs. Yorke, baker’s bread (there were five tradesmen of the craft in Yatala), fresh butter, and new laid eggs, with hot coffee, were all forthcoming. We had previously performed our ablutions and dressed ourselves with a trifling amount of extra care. The Major and I messed together in our weather-tight abode, wherein was a small extemporised table. Cyrus Yorke, his wife, and Joe Bulder had their meal at the family tent.

‘Well, Pole,’ said the Major, ‘what was the result of your business interview with Mrs. Mangrove? Is she going to sell us up at the end of the month, or have you blarneyed her into another excursion towards the Insolvent Court?’

‘She is a brick,’ I returned, ‘and John is not a bad fellow either. They have promised to back us until Christmas. After that we must take our chance.’

‘By Jove!’ said my friend, ‘she is a tower of Shinar, in the brick line; a regular goldfield’s guardian angel—a tutelar divinity! I don’t know what all! We shall strike the gutter yet, depend upon it. And yet, consider my improper exultation! Depending for my daily steak (how famous and tender this one is; that little woman of ours has had it hanging up a week—bless her); depending, I say, for my daily bread and butter on a poor woman’s bounty—what would the old 77th say to it. Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, eh?’

I had determined to spend the day in tranquil self-communion. To that end I sallied out, with some slight provision for a midday meal, for a long day’s walk; the Major electing to pass the time on the broad of his back, working up his arrears of light literature, of which we always received from home a generous supply.

‘Going for a regular all-day constitutional, Harry, are you?’ he said. ‘Well, every man to his taste: this is a free country. Seems to me we get a fair share of exercise without a twenty mile hump on Sundays. Keep your eyes open, for a likely gully for prospecting.’

He began to cut the leaves of his Saturday Review, and I departed. I was in no mood for the grim pleasantries, the instructive scientific articles, the scathing criticism of that magazine of pure English and merciless sarcasm. Welcome had been its arrival to us in many a dull unrelieved term of labour in the glaring dusty midsummer, or the dreary winter weather, when the rows of tents stood on a plateau of knee-deep mud. But now I longed to speed forth across the low green hills strewn with diorite, across the sharply outlined ridge, where the great white blocks of quartz gleamed in the morning sun, adown the long eastern slope, for miles through the park-like southern forest, where, over the thick greensward, the forester kangaroo and the wallaroo alone run, where eager green and gold parrots chattered and screamed—where the blue heron fished silently by the reed-fringed creek, where the eagle soared calm and peerless amid the loneliness of the firmament. And there I, too, could be alone and relieve my heart, that seemed almost bursting with unshared thought and thankfulness.

After hours of rambling and a gradual descent, I found myself in a defile which slowly widened, until it became a pleasant meadow-seeming flat, partly overgrown with high grass and patches of rushes. The hillsides had been precipitous, and an easier path having been found by the strayed horses and cattle of the miners, Nova Scotia Gully, as it had been called by a wandering Blue Nose, had been completely neglected.

A promising place for ‘prospecting.’ Yet nowhere did I see the shafts and heaps of rock or gravel which tell in a gold country of the hasty search for the precious metal. Instinctively reasoning on these passing thoughts, half looking out for a pleasant spot for my midday halt, I mechanically wandered to a depression where a lofty eucalyptus, fallen before a hurricane blast, lay with its bared roots sheer athwart a tiny water-course. Below this natural embankment was a pool filled with pellucid water.

‘Here,’ I said, ‘I will dream out the day, translating myself as nearly as may be in spirit to the pleasant land of my fathers, and linking my soul to hers, whose pure steadfast heart has so strengthened and lightened mine.’

Hour after hour, after my frugal midday meal, I lay on the grass under the vast trunk of the fallen forest-monarch, and dreamed of green England’s meads and time-worn crumbling keeps, of the half-royal residences of the great nobles—the time-honoured halls of the squires and county gentlemen. I saw again the ancient gables of Allerton Court, the ivy—buttressed village church, the plodding unambitious farm-labourers, the old women in their caps, the clerk withstanding the ever troublesome boys, trying in vain to restrain from sounds and antics, secular if not profane, the calm voice of the clergyman reading the prayers, or preaching the sermon. How much out of keeping would any excited action or unfamiliar doctrine have been in that haven of repose and assured joys? And then, turning first to one side and then to the other, with a smile or a pleasant word, as either parent spoke, came my own, my beloved, my peerless Ruth Allerton.

Should I ever see her again, hear her voice, under the great lime trees I remembered so well, when we watched for the first shivering whisper as the evening breeze came sighing up over hill and dale? What a waste world was there between us! What a mournful, pale-gleaming, endless plain of ocean! Nor only such, but the great desert of Poverty, where the dwellers are for ever Bedouins, raiders, outcasts, desperate or despised dwellers on sufferance, by the border of the high-walled cities of wealth and respectability.

Thus did I think; thus muse during the little season of leisure which was allotted to me. The short day was fading fast ere I had completed my round of thought. Henceforth, action would obliterate contemplation. But I felt that in my life I had made a fresh departure. Kneeling on the turf by the gnarled tree-trunk, scarred and scattered as by the fire-storms of centuries, I swore solemnly that, until the year expired, I would neither pause nor slacken in my search for the magical metal. Magical—it would be the long lost Philosopher’s stone, would it not transmute the base dross of my present life into the minted treasure of honourable security—successful love?

The lengthening shadows, the more distinct woodland cries, warned me that I must tread the homeward path. At twelve o’clock that night I should have to go on to the ‘night shift,’ when eight hours of continuous labour were before me. But my heart was light, my purpose firm. Hope had never glowed so brightly in my breast since first I quitted England’s shore, with all the sanguine strength of boyhood’s expectation. As I stood up and faced the glowing west, where the rich hues of sunset poured a full glory upon the long green vistas of the waving woodland, a fragment of quartz attracted my attention. I picked it up and applied the usual miner’s test. A few minute specks of the dull yellow, but unmistakable metal were visible. I hastily scooped out a handful or two of the surrounding earth, and improvising a dish from a circular bark covering of a hole in the nearest tree, washed it in the little rivulet. The result was a few grains of gold. This was fully satisfactory, as giving a few grains to so small a quantity of the gravel, the proportion to a cartload, the usual alluvial miner’s measure, would be far beyond ordinary yields.

I decided to take possession at once of this lucky portion of the earth’s surface, from which I anticipated the realisation of my fondest hopes, and commenced to cut four pegs, by placing which in the ground, one at each angle of the claim, I could, according to mining law, take perfect and inalienable possession. But all suddenly a feeling arose, vital and instinctive, which arrested all action—it was the Sabbath day. True, I had employed it most literally as a day of rest, of idle reverie, not availing myself of the regular preaching and prayers conducted by the minister of each denomination on the goldfield. Still, so strong was the reminiscent tradition of my childhood that I could not, for the life of me, commit so total a breach of all my early teaching and belief as to mark out a claim, thus doing actual work, and following my regular work-a-day avocation on Sunday. The old village chimes came back to my heart, to my ears, I could almost have sworn. My mother’s voice, sweet, grave, low-toned—I seemed to hear the very words which inculcated self-denial, reading of the Word, heeding the commandments, ‘Thou shalt not labour, thou and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy servant, and the stranger that is within thy gates.’ I heard it all in memory’s wondrous phonograph, as the full tide of life rolled backward, and I saw myself a schoolboy at the knee of a pale lady with wistful eyes and a radiance of holy love beaming around her worn features. All this I saw and heard. I could not sin against knowledge. I was not as one of the reckless gold-hunters with which the camp was thronged. I could not do the deed.

‘It matters not,’ thought I, ‘the place is rarely visited. I will come to-morrow after my shift is over. That will surely be time enough; and now I must stretch out if I wish to save the light.’

I cast down the stake, turned my back upon the temptation, and stepped out manfully towards the camp. As I left the spot the sun’s level gleam seemed to light up the scattered quartz fragments with a glitter which transformed them into golden ingots. The strange laughing kingfisher of the south (Dacelo giganteus) perched upon a dead tree in my path, where his extravagant and ludicrous cachinnatory succession of notes, ending in a long-drawn ha-ha-ha, had a weird derisive chuckle to my ears. Was I turning my back upon a fortune, in obedience to the bidding of an outworn superstition? No, assuredly not! Yet my heart misgave me, and an evil presentiment commenced to depress my so lately exulted faculties.

The moon was up as I passed the track which for the last mile, running through an abandoned lead, was a narrow riband of safety amid a region of shafts of all depths and suddenness of approach. The lead with its hundreds of mounds, its black yawning pit mouths, had a ghostly appearance in the still clear, cold light as of a graveyard awaiting the unburied dead of a battlefield. The narrow path led onward, over, and around the lesser hillocks, passing the edge of sullen, narrow mine-mouths, where the displaced clod or pebble went rumbling and murmuring long—long—long—minutes it seemed, though but seconds in reality—ere the dull thud or splash at the bottom told of its completed errand. What would a man’s fate be if belated or tarrying too long at the wine-cup he stumbled into one of those entrances to the nether world? I had known of such a fate happening to more than one stalwart miner, who had risen that day in rude health and well nigh giant strength. More than one skeleton had I known scooped out, months, nay years, after the disappearance of a comrade, only to be identified by the clothing that enwrapped the bones. But such would never be my fate. I knew every yard of the track. I rarely travelled the path but by daylight, and no living man could assert with truth that he had ever seen Hereward Pole under the influence of intoxicating liquor.

When I reached our camp fire, I found all preparation for our evening meal in such a state of perfect arrangement as induced me to suspect what indeed was the case, that the Major had been considerately awaiting my return.

‘Thought you were never coming,’ he growled, with affected sulkiness of tone. ‘Mrs. Yorke, please to put the gridiron upon the fire at once, and the steak upon the gridiron one minute afterwards. I’m so delighted you’ve returned safe, Master Harry. I was just thinking how my supper was in a fair way to be ruined. Not that I was going to be fool enough to wait for you ten minutes longer; but how could a fellow—I put it to you as a gentleman and a man of the world—how could a fellow enjoy his steak knowing that he would have to go up to the camp and report his mate’s probable death by flood and field—gunshot or suicide, or miscalculation of distance, in the morning.’

‘A decidedly epicurean view to take of my probable decease,’ rejoined I; ‘but your friend the coroner will find no inquest necessary at present. It was very good of you to wait supper for me, dead or alive. How delightfully the steak hisses and simmers; wait till I have just time to dress the least bit, and it will be done to a turn. I have news, too.’

To change my outer coat for an old—very old—shooting jacket, but still distinguished as to cut, to replace the heavy walking boots by shoes, and to perform certain splashings, did not occupy many minutes. When I came forth from the recesses of the tent, refreshed and charitable of mood, the steak before referred to was in the act of being placed upon our humble board. Such it was, literally, being a section of a cedar plank about two feet wide, supported on trestles, which rendered transport and packing a very simple transaction. Covered with a clean cloth, it was sufficiently large for the present dinner party, the number of which never required to be increased. Potatoes baked in the ashes and served up hot, coffee, white bread in very excellent rolls, with honey and fresh butter, completed our meal. There was one rare and indispensable adjunct, that of appetite, which we rarely lacked, and which I may frankly confess to have provided in a very high state of perfection on this particular occasion.

We had eaten with satisfaction, we had washed down the solids with cups of coffee; we had lighted our pipes, and were miles beyond any of the lower unamiable forms of conversation, when I thus spoke—

‘Major, I did not go out expressly with a view of prospecting to-day. I want to tell you that I came across something which I fancy will materially alter our worldly expectations.’

‘Nobody said you were going prospecting,’ observed the Major quietly. ‘Nobody thought you had as much sense. We knew you would lie under a tree all day, and dream of the perfections of—what’s her name—Miss Allerton. Besides, I know you have the narrow English notion of Sunday.’

‘I didn’t go out prospecting,’ said I; ‘as you kindly observe, I had not sense enough; but I made a discovery all the same. What do you think of that?’ said I, suddenly producing one of my specimens.

The Major took it carelessly in his hand, looked narrowly at the sides and facets, moistened it with his tongue, squinted at it, and finally, with an air of high professional skill, said—

‘To my mind it’s awfully good, fine gold showing all through it—the best kind of stone, always. Rich enough for everybody. You took up a claim of course?’

‘Well, no!’ said I, ‘Major, I did not. I have, as you say, some lingering traditions about my early days, and I could not disavow them. We can go and take it up early to-morrow after I come off the night shift. We must be all four there to put in the pegs, you know?’

‘Yes, and an awful bother, too. Why can’t one man, in the name of his partners, take up a claim—always supposing that they have the requisite number of miner’s rights?’

‘Well, of course; but there’s something to be said on the other side. Occupation is the great fundamental principle of the miner. Otherwise the capitalist might, by proxy, delegate, and so on, monopolise half the good ground on a goldfield.’

‘You be hanged,’ growled the Major, ‘you’re talking now like an intelligent practical miner, a friend of the people, and so on. But we’d better all start at sunrise to-morrow morning, if it’s a good show.’

On the next morning, accordingly, four men might have been observed wending their way eastward from Yatala, at an unusually early hour. They walked rapidly forward, silent, strong with steadfast resolve. It was the midwinter; the frost was white upon grass and shrub, the drooping points of which were bright and crystal-glittering.

‘It occurs to me,’ said the Major, after a long pause, in an ill-used tone, ‘that we are most confoundedly cold, and most probably proceeding on a fool’s errand as well. Ten to one there’s nothing in this claim after we have pegged it out.’

‘I allus reckoned this was a lucky gully out here,’ said Cyrus Yorke, ‘and much about the lie of the place where Harry talks of. I had a mind to peg out there myself once.’

‘And why didn’t you?’ said I.

‘Well, something put me off it,’ said Cyrus, the most inconsequent of men. It was an excuse that we all eagerly accepted.

‘This gully does shape like the real thing,’ said Joe Bulder. ‘I’ll be bound when we get on a mile farther we’ll all be of the same mind. I wish we’d thought of it a week ago. All the gold seems running this way. There’s the Australian Maid, the Blue Snake, and the Doubtful Card, all struck gold in the same line. I believe we’ll be on the gutter this time if we stick in to work at once.’

‘I can only say,’ returned I, ‘that in all my experience’—we were beginning to talk, nay, to think, like men who had possessed no interest but those allied with the search for gold since childhood—who dreamed of no other distraction for the years that lay between them and the grave—‘in all my experience I never saw any thing more promising.’

‘Dare say not,’ said the Major scornfully, ’all goldfield ventures are promising. Devil mend them. They are his lures specially and entirely. I should never be surprised at seeing him come and carry away a miner, or elevate the editor of a mining newspaper bodily. What lies—only inferior to those of the Father of those inventions—must he have hatched, have supported! What an atmosphere of dissimulation must he have experienced, nay, have revelled in!’

‘We have only to cross that ridge and we are in sight of the spot. I am sure that you will be taken with it. Push on boys; a fortune is waiting for you. I am as sure as that we stand here that the Nova Scotia Prospecting Claim will run gold into our pockets like a schoolboy making dumps.’

‘Seeing’s believing,’ said the Major, quite inconsequentially. ‘We have had not quite so much of that lately. Why, who is this, and what is he doing so early? By Jove, it’s Gus Maynard. What’s up, Gus?’

Gus Maynard, an American, ranked highly in our metallurgical phalanstery. Well-educated and well-mannered, he was one of the enigmas which abound on goldfields, but which, after the incurious mental habit which prevails in these societies, doubtless for good and sufficient reason, no one attempts to solve. Unobtrusive, yet manly and direct of demeanour, he was equally bon camarade with the humblest miner and with the educated, and what might be termed aristocratic section. He was thoroughly practical, in spite of his rather advanced geological theories, and had not wielded pick and shovel, from Suttor’s Mill to Hokitiki Beach—terraces, for nothing.

‘I’ve been pegging out a fraud, I reckon, for the 999th time,’ he said, with the slow monotone which few northern Americans contrive to evade. ‘The early bird gets the worm, you benighted Britishers are fond of saying. My notion is that he rushes out before he completes his ciphering, and so gets “had” by a stock broker, an insurance agent, or some other varmint.’

‘Or by a betting man, eh Gus?’ said I; ‘but where have you been pegging out, and where are your mates?’

‘Gone home; but I can show you their miners’ rights, if you wish. Just marked out a prospecting claim, and if I hadn’t sworn never to waste words on a hole till I saw the gold come out of it, I’d say it was a good one.’

‘Show it to us, Gus,’ said I faintly. As I spoke a sudden thrill of pain struck through me, while I saw in my mind’s eye countless loads of ounce wash-dirt stacked around my spot.

‘Know where there’s a big fallen tree, a little well hole like, just in the dip of the flat? There you have it. I’d spotted this Nova Scotia Gulch for some time, and this morning I up and drove pegs, with the other three boys, because I had a dream four others were going to take it up.’

‘Would you know any of them again?’

‘One of ’em had a velvet coat on. I remembered that, for I never saw one here.’

‘You’re dream carried true as a pea-rifle, Gus,’ said I. ‘The fit took me to put on an old velveteen shooting jacket yesterday that I had in my kit. I wish it may bring you no ill luck, but it’s my claim that you’ve just taken up. The Major and I and the other two mates are on our way to mark that very claim. I was there all day yesterday, but couldn’t put in a peg because it was Sunday.’

‘And a very good reason, too,’ said Gus; ‘suited us admirably. But hadn’t you better come on and take up No. 1 South; it may be a good show. We’ve taken up five hundred feet square, and will set to work the day after to-morrow.’

The Major burst into a fit of immoderate laughter. ‘Harry,’ said he, ‘we’re not going to make our fortune this time. Fate and Gus Maynard have been too much for you. Let’s have the melancholy satisfaction of seeing Gus’s pegs, and noting whether they are all en règle. If not we’ll “jump” him.’

I mechanically followed our transatlantic friend, though I felt more inclined to sit down and cast ashes on my head, in sincere imitation of the older races, who thus very naturally vented their emotions.

It was too true. The fallen tree—the pellucid basin, no longer stood unsoiled by the hand of man. They were in the centre of a square, at each corner of which was a substantial peg, with a trench cut to show the intersection of the angles. Every bit of ground which but yestereven I so fondly trusted to be the means of restoring my fallen fortunes, was now inalienably vested in others.

For, according to mining law, well known and carefully studied by us all, ‘prior occupation,’ if but of five minutes’ standing, was sufficient to establish a right valid as that of an immemorial freehold. I knew Gus Maynard too well to doubt that he had neglected any of the necessary forms. My golden estate was as completely forfeited as if I had remained in England.

Not entirely to lose all our labour we marked out the first claim, after the prospecting claim, in a southerly direction. This, however, as by law established, would be but half the size of the premier or prospecting claim, and to my jaundiced vision did not appear to be half as likely to contain gold.

‘What are you going to call it, Gus?’ said I. ‘It may as well have a name.’

‘We’ll call it the Nova Scotia Lead,’ said Gus. ‘The man this gully was named after was a friend of mine, and a real smart chap, but so darned unlucky, that I believe if he bought an axe the handle would split before he got home.’

‘Perhaps his luck will turn some day,’ said I, ‘nothing like perseverance.’

‘Well, so it may,’ said the mild-mannered, but somewhat obstinate Gus; ‘in about thirty or forty years, may be, he might have a throw in. Then, most likely he’d pass in his checks right away. I’m a great believer in luck. I never had much myself, or I shouldn’t be here, you bet. And an old Indian woman told me once—but—let’s talk of something else.’

‘What did she tell you, Gus?’ said I, reckless in my despair, and not disposed to acquiesce in any man’s softly superstitious moods.

‘It’s nonsense, no doubt, but all her tribe swore—I hunted with them when I was a boy—that old Tacomah was never known to be wrong, and more than a score of deaths had occurred in the exact order she had predicted. It was this,’ continued he, while a shadow covered his face, like a dim presage of coming ill—‘She said I should go to a far land across sea, to find gold; that I should have my desire, but that when I had reached it to beware, for the end was nigh.’

‘Every man’s end must be nigh whose fate compels him to live in this infernal place,’ said the Major. ‘We work like niggers, and live like black fellows (this was rather unfair to Mrs. Yorke); we never see any gold ourselves, and yet have the privilege of looking at other fellows handling it and hugging it as their own. Now, I know you’ll be on it here, and as you’re a sporting man, let us have a wager.’

‘All right,’ said Gus, a born gambler, who, though prudent and highly respectable, had a book always at the Metropolitan Races, ‘what shall it be?’

‘I’ll lay a hundred to two in fives,’ said the Major, ‘that you get nothing payable out of this claim. If you win I sha’n’t miss the brace of fives. If it turns out a real golden hole, five hundred pounds won’t be worth considering—will it?’

‘Done, and done again,’ said he heartily.

The bets were written down carefully and methodically. After a while we returned to our old claim, crest-fallen it is true, but fully resolved to make a stand upon No. 1 South Nova Scotia Lead, and to free ourselves from debt, if possible, if we didn’t make our ‘pile’ just yet.

We sold out our old claim for a ten-pound note; and in a couple of days, with our belongings at Nova Scotia Gully, had logged up and made a start with another shaft.

The sinking was good. No rock, no water. Gus and his party were soon down to the bottom. That is, the alluvial drift, the sand and water-worn pebbles, the gravel and debris of the long dead, deeply buried stream, which in past ages had rippled and murmured under the blue heavens, heard the birds call amid the trees, which lined its banks and reflected the still azure of a southern sky.

Now waterless, soundless—blind, dumb, and imprisoned it lay, with a hundred feet of the earth’s crust upon its bosom—that bosom which was once more bared to the light of day, solely by reason of the gems and scattered treasure which lay amid the sands of shore and channel.

Man, the arch-disturber, burying himself deep below the soil, and groping, mole fashion, in his sunless galleries, was able to trace out all the meanderings of that sunless stream. Even the dark hard stone-like fragments of the perished forest did he exhume, scrutinising the grain of the timber which had fallen, the fruit which had ripened, the leaf which had withered in the long solitary aeons of dimmest Eld.

When the first ‘prospect,’ the first pan of alluvial gold-drift, was sent up to be tested, we stopped work and joined the anxious crowd, who pressed around, deeply curious and, indeed, directly interested in its proved value.

The manner of separating the clay, sand, gravel, etc., from the precious metal, is much after this fashion: carrying his tin pan or dish to the nearest water, the miner—Gus himself in this present instance—dips the vessel beneath, and immediately commences a half-circular, half-vertical, rotatory movement, suffering the clay-stained water to pour off, to be replenished from time to time, and always leaving less and less debris behind it.

After successive washings and castings forth of the pebbles by hand, nothing is left but a narrow crescent of sand, on the edge of which a border of dull red grains, specks, small particles, and a few irregular yellowish fragments, are plainly visible. There is no mistaking the king of metals. As Gus holds up the dish first for mine, and then for the inspection of the eager crowd, each man takes a rapid, earnest glance, and draws back. Then a wild cry bursts forth, hats are thrown up in the excitement of the moment, and the more intelligible utterances can be translated into ‘fine gold, mostly, some rather coarse and water-worn—half a pennyweight to dish.’

This was success, indeed, triumphant, intoxicating success. The rule of three sum under such circumstances, which every miner entrusts to his mental arithmetic, runs thus: two dishes to a bucket, sixty buckets to a load, which makes three ounces, or £11 odd to the load—the load meaning a reasonable quantity for one horse to draw in a box cart. The wash-dirt has in a general way to be subjected to a puddling machine, a shallow wooden cylinder, like a large circular trough, in which a species of harrow is drawn by an unlucky horse, which continues his unending round, like the traditionary mill horse, until he must be heartily sick of the whole concern.

Poignant regret and bitter disappointment were over, though so little a matter as the delay of a day’s marking out had lost us what promised to be as good a claim as any on Yatala. In fact, ‘a gentle fortune,’ as Cyrus observed. We comforted ourselves with the belief that in No. 1 we had a claim which would almost necessarily be a good one—might, indeed, be as rich, or, indeed, richer than the prospecting claim.

Taking the general nature of ‘leads’ or dead rivers, it chiefly obtained, that if gold were found on one portion of them, it extended to all the claims within a considerable distance. Sometimes, of course, it was not so. All the gold in the locality appeared to have been shovelled by malignant gnomes into one crevice, in the familiar phrase of the miners, ‘a pot hole,’ leaving the rest of the lead non-auriferous and disappointing. This we knew to be possible, but did not think probable. We accordingly worked away, stimulated daily by the pile of wash-dirt rising high on the side of the prospecting claim’s brace—a pile in which the gold could be seen with the naked eye. At length we bottomed. Our shaft was down amid huge gray boulders of limestone which formed the bed rock of the locale. The drift was reached. With what anxious eagerness did the Major and I carry out our first dish of wash-dirt to ‘try a prospect.’ Inch by inch the sand and gravel lowered in the dish, the clay-stained water flowed and flowed, till at length, in the full view of a hundred men, the last streak of sand and minute gravel was left. In vain we looked, with practised eye, for the faint red rim which had comforted us in the prospecting claim. I shook the dish, and with the action dispersed and reunited the remnant sand. It was of no avail. No trace—even the faintest—of ‘the colour’ could be descried. With a half angry, half humourous roar, the crowd parted right and left, while the verdict was proclaimed, expressively if not elegantly, by Cyrus Yorke himself, who cried aloud, plain for all men to hear.

‘Bottomed a duffer, by gum, not the colour itself, no mor’n on the palm o’ my hand.’

We tried a few more dishes, all with the same melancholy result. Not a scintilla of the magic metal. Our labour had gone for nothing. We felt humiliated in the opinion of the crowd, many of whom had a personal interest in our success, as their claims, following after ours, would have been enhanced in value. Others, in despite of the stern mining law, were evasive of regulations and were awaiting our success, in order to commence sinking on their own account. Others had speculated in shares for the rise, and now found themselves hung up in a falling market. All these persons regarded us, with more or less of justice, as having done them an injury.

About the same time or, indeed, within a few days afterwards, No. 1 North, with Nos. 2 and 3 on either side, bottomed with similar results. It was the more astonishing, as all the while the prospecting claim was raising any quantity of wash-dirt, and the market value of shares therein had risen to one thousand pounds per man. How I almost cursed my too rigidly puritanic education!

Cast adrift again, we struck out for pastures new in the mining-nomadic sense, and, disappointed—not despairing—commenced a fresh shaft some ten miles off—this time on a Saturday night, and in an extremely promising flat, in which, as usual, I sanguinely trusted to find my schatz, like the drei reisende auf ihrem wege. The schatz, however, was not, as yet, for anyone—except Gus Maynard, it seemed. The Nova Scotia base line was changed by the commissioner, upon the impassioned application of scores of distressed miners, some with large families, others without any encumbrance, as they are politely termed in Australia. All kinds of efforts were made to trace the gold; but no gold could by any means be traced, except in the unlucky-lucky prospecting claim—the shareholders in which were Gus Maynard and party, and not Harry Pole and Co., alas!

Then was the well-known frontage expedient tried of ‘swinging the base line,’ which the commissioner was empowered to do, when called upon by a majority of the registered claim-holders, on any given frontage lead. This somewhat remarkable operation, well-nigh impossible to explain to non-mining intelligence, and sufficiently confusing even to those who had the dear-bought privilege of mining experience, may be illustrated as follows.

The Miner’s Right - Contents    |     Chapter VI

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