But where the coming decision touched us, and the other frontage men, was in this wise: if we happened to drop right down on the ‘gutter,’ or main course of the lead, we were all right; we should be allowed so many days to mark out our claim of a hundred and sixty feet, forty feet a man along the lead, and two hundred back, and it would be all right. That area of ground, all on gold, was a very fair allowance for four men.
But if we were not exactly on the course of the lead, but a little to the right or left of it, and if the block system was declared next week, matters would be very different. We should have to mark out our claim there and then. It could not afterwards be altered by a single inch. This would have to be done at haphazard, instead of by cautious ‘proving’ the ground, as under the frontage system. And if we missed the lead it might be taken possession of by any random blocker, just pitchforked here from another colony. We should lose the reward of months and years of work, the certainty we had a right to expect when we registered under the frontage system.
In the interim much agitation took place. Councils and caucuses were held. Letters and petitions despatched profusely to the Minister for Lands, who in those days held ultimate control over all mining affairs. The newspapers exhausted themselves in leading articles, each tending to exalt and glorify a different mining policy.
One gave a strictly conservative support to authority. ‘The frontage system, framed as it was with the advice of experienced officials, was considered by intelligent miners to afford a highly needful guarantee for capital invested in mining enterprise. Without capital there would be little mining worthy of the name, more particularly where, as in Yatala, the difficulties of piercing the basaltic strata, and of subduing the flow of subterranean streams, had to be surmounted. Still it was the opinion of many competent authorities that the frontage system had had its day. The field had been for some time in a languishing state. Many hard-working men were out of employment. There were specific regulations which had to be interpreted with a literal exactitude independently of personal feeling or private interest. And no one who knew Commissioner Blake doubted but that he would decide according to the letter of the law, and carry out that decision with unbending firmness.’ Thus the Beacon.
This was the opportunity which the opposition journal had been waiting. And cheerfully did Mr. Fitzgerald Keene avail himself of the happy convention of circumstances.
‘Many occasions had arisen during the last decade of shameless oppression and official incompetency, when the long suffering mining community, comprising a singularly large proportion of the intelligence, the energy, and the industrial enterprise of the land, might have spoken out with effect. True to their law-abiding instincts, they had hitherto remained loyal to the Crown, and obedient if not humble before constituted authority. But now the time had come, the hour had struck, when they must proclaim themselves to be freemen or for ever endure to be known and treated as slaves. Under the iniquitous mining statutes, and the still more contemptible mining regulations, their intelligence had been stultified, their freedom had been mocked, their opinions derided, and their industry fettered.
‘Still there had been a pretence of fair play—there had been a tendency, erratic as had been the course pursued, in the right direction. Now, in this thrice accursed muddle which had taken place at The Liberator, would the herd of down-trampled miners, numerically the strongest body of labourers in the land, stand by and consent to their own ruin and spoliation? Was there not a man from old Ballarat to utter the magic words “roll up?”
‘And would a monster meeting separate without compelling present safety, and exacting material guarantees for the future?’
It was not altogether a sterile soil into which these seeds of revolution were so recklessly cast. It was a mob. Though vastly superior, as I have elsewhere stated, in its composition to most other mobs, it yet possessed their inherent characteristics. By the turn of a straw its action might have oscillated from good to evil, from patience and obedience to insubordination and wildest excess.
Among other expedients and demonstrations of the time, each party favoured large and imposing deputations. One day the frontage men and their adherents, backers, friends, acquaintances, etc., would march into town, several hundred strong, with banners flying and a band of music, to which a drum of sonorous, mysterious power lent effect. Forming in front of the Commissioner’s office, they would request an audience.
When that gentleman sent word to say that he would consent to see them as soon as he had completed his immediate business, the crack speaker of the connection would be detailed for the occasion. When he appeared that gifted person would fire away at the unmoved Commissioner for twenty minutes or so without a check.
‘He could inform him that the honest and legitimate miners whom he saw now assembled had come to lay their grievances respectfully before him, and to ask him if he was minded to have mercy upon them, upon their helpless wives and children, depending upon their rights as holders of frontage claims for bread? or, was he going to be carried away by the senseless clamour of a mob of strangers and adventurers, who had not a shred of title to the land they sought to plunder. Had not they, the frontage men, conformed to the laws laid down by the Government closely and obediently; had they not duly registered their claims, incurred debts from their storekeepers and business men on the field on the strength of the security of tenure guaranteed by the frontage system? And now, after waiting for days, and weeks, and months, were they to be told that, because a new and unjust regulation had been made, because the first few shafts on the lead had not proved to be the full hundred feet in depth, were they to be turned out of their property—for it was as much theirs while they paid for their Miner’s Right as the lands of Mr. Howard or Mr. Stanley, neighbouring country gentlemen? Were they to be turned out of their claims just when they were seen to be worth holding? No! They were honest men and loyal subjects, but there was a point beyond which men could not be urged. If justice were not given them in this matter bloodshed would be the end of it. They said it sorrowfully but firmly, and upon the heads of the Government the crime would rest.’
The speaker, who was a bachelor, and had last week had a quarter share in a frontage claim given to him as a retaining fee, almost wept at this point, and, with a look of sorrowful but manly appeal, closed his address amid cheers and applause.
The Commissioner always heard out such addresses, knowing from long experience that when a grievance has been rankling in the breasts of men, ordinarily silent about their dissatisfactions, nothing is more unsafe than to deny a hearing when they demand one.
‘You may do as you please about granting their petitions,’ he was wont to say. ‘You may do what they don’t like, or do nothing at all. But if you wish to rule large bodies of men peaceably, always hear what they have got to say. It is an inestimable safety valve.’
So Captain Blake listened to the eloquent miners’ advocate, and gazed at him and the assembled crowd with an approving and benevolent expression. At the end of the oration he told them that ‘he was sorry for them personally, if by any act of his, in carrying out the regulations, they should lose their claims on the Liberator Lead, some of which to his knowledge had been held in despite of difficulty and privation, for many months. But, above all, it would depend upon what proof was furnished to him of the depth of the sinking, and upon other particulars which would bring their claims under the provisions of the mining regulations. He would examine most carefully the evidence and those sections which bore upon the case in point. After that he would give his decision. He would frame that decision most elaborately, so that it should be in accordance with the law. And when it was given he should see that it was carried out. That was all he had to say to them.’
Whereupon they always thanked him for his courtesy and departed. The Commissioner went back into his office. The band struck up afresh, and the excited crowd dispersed, to walk six or seven miles back again.
A report would soon arise, that they had stated their case to the Commissioner with such power and pathos—the orator of the deputation would, perhaps, be responsible for this—that he had promised to decide in favour of the frontage men. The blockers being thereby infuriated would resolve to come in and state their wrongs. Being, as the proletariat, much more numerous than the frontage holders, who represented capital, they would ‘roll up’ so successfully that a crowd more than a thousand strong would, on the appointed day, be seen marching in a tremendous long line, four abreast, down the main street of the town, halting finally at the Commissioner’s office. That much tried official would certainly begin a sentence with blank, and end it with the same, placing divers other blanks in the middle, all having reference to the eyes and future prospects of the majority of the members of the band and the personages of the deputation.
After thus blowing off the steam, he would meet them at the door, and listen tranquilly to what they had to say. Then the advanced democrat who was their philosopher and spokesman would thus open the trenches—
‘As miners, and as men, they had come there to-day, not with any intention of threatening or intimidation,’—the Captain looked quietly at the speaker as he said this, who passed on to the next sentence—‘but to protest mildly yet firmly, as became legitimate miners, against any monopoly of the field, whether it was by men claiming to be frontage-holders, or any others, he cared not who they might be, or what they were called.
‘If they were not all experienced miners who were here assembled this day, they all were the holders of Miners’ Rights—many of them had families many had helpless relatives depending upon them. Some had come from a distance it is true. But what of that? as long as they were at this moment dwellers in New South Wales, they had as much right to a fair share of any payable ground that turned up as the Governor himself. All they wanted was justice and impartiality. Let every man be allowed to mark out his claim, and get gold or not as his luck went. The law said, if the ground was under a hundred feet deep it was no frontage, and must be worked on the block. All they wanted was the law. The Commissioner was appointed to carry out the law, fair and equal, between man and man. They knew very well that the Liberator Lead was no frontage lead—but block, that is, ground to be worked in ordinary block claims. And block they hoped the Commissioner would declare it to be. It would be better for the whole field, and not leave the gold that was intended for the country at large in the hands of a few.’
‘To this the Commissioner would reply that—‘he would very closely examine the ground when three or more shafts had been bottomed on the lead, and would then give his decision in accordance with the strict law of the case. They might depend upon that being done when the time came, that is, when that number had been bottomed. Until that time came he could not, of course, tell them what his decision would be. He hoped it would be found to be according to law, and excepting by the Appeal Court there was not much chance of its being altered.
The speaker then essayed to get another hearing, reminding the Commissioner that ‘they represented four thousand men. They were not going to boast or make threats; but they were determined to have justice, peaceably, if possible, but if justice was denied them they would consider the advisability of using the power which their numbers gave them.’
At this point the Captain’s patience—for the most part an algebraic or unknown quantity—abruptly gave out. He reminded the speaker that the miners had never gained anything by physical force in New South Wales, and as long as he had anything to do with mining, he trusted they never would. He had said all he had to say. They had fully explained their case, and could add nothing more, it appeared, but empty threats, which were utterly contemptible. He was busy now and begged to retire. Then he went in and closed the door.
In consequence of the reported ‘bottoming’ of certain shafts, punctually to the hour on the morning appointed, the Commissioner rode up to the Liberator Lead. There was hardly standing room for a mile around. The line of shafts could be traced by the flags which each exhibited. At the Prospector’s, being ’on gold,’ streamed a red flag, emblem of success. Also on three other shafts, Nos. 1, 2, and 3 North, which had bottomed on the supposed line of lead, thus forming a sufficient test of the depth of the ground according to the conditions of regulation number twenty-two.
When the great man appeared, a deep hoarse sound rose indistinctly from the enormous crowd. Fully five thousand men had gathered hours since to await his approach. His fiat, to be given that day, was looked for with an intensity almost painful to a sympathetic bystander.
Upon Captain Blake alone, apparently, the immense concourse, the strained attention of the masses, the weight of responsibility, had no visible effect. He regarded the whole scene and its peculiar features with haughty immobility.
Riding to the first claim, he said to the men who were ’off work,’ and standing at the mouth of their shaft, shareholders of No. 1.—
‘You are on gold?’
‘Yes, sir, we’ve struck it all right.’
‘At what depth?’ is the next question.
‘Well, about a hundred feet,’ they answered.
‘I shall send down two men first, and then measure your shaft.’
‘All right, Captain.’
Two selected miners, as before, were lowered down the shaft, returning as hitherto, in the case of the Prospectors, with tangible proof of the highly auriferous nature of the deposit.
‘So far, so good; now Mr. Richardson,’ here advances the mining surveyor, ‘have the goodness to measure this shaft.’
Mr. Richardson descends; then, after due delay, regains this upper earth, distinctly enunciating—‘Ninety-seven feet five inches.’
At which statement a cheer from the blockers for the first time wakes the forest echoes, and a thousand caps or hats are thrown excitedly into the air.
The same formalities are carefully gone through with No. 2 and No. 3. Each is demonstrated to be ‘a golden hole.’ When measured, No. 2 is declared to be ninety-three feet and a half; No. 3 ninety-one only. Each declaration elicits a bursting cheer from the majority of the crowd.
Then the Commissioner braces himself, sitting squarely on his horse and confronting the assembled multitude. His address is brief. But rarely have words more power. This only does he say: ‘I declare the Liberator Lead to be “on the block.”’
This simple word would appear to have converted the whole assemblage into a crowd of raging lunatics. With one mighty cry rather than a shout the crowd broke up, apparently prepared to take immediate possession of the Tom Tidler’s ground then and there handed over to them.
‘Stop!’ roared the Commissioner, in a voice of thunder which dominated the great mob, and almost immediately reduced those within hearing to a listening attitude. ‘I give the holders of frontage claims twenty-four hours to mark out their claims in rotation, according to their priority of occupation—the ground will then be open for taking up claims in the block form.’
‘I belong to No. 6,’ said a tall miner; ‘we haven’t proved it yet. We hardly know where to take our ground. Won’t you give us a day or two more, Captain? It’s rather rough on us frontage holders.’
‘Not an hour—not a minute,’ replied the Commissioner. ‘I have adhered strictly to the regulations. I didn’t make them, and I cant help the ground not being deeper. That’s your affair. I have given my decision, and by the Lord I mean to stick to it. Good-morning, all of you.’
A world of opposing forces and passionate feelings was soothing in the hearts of the men to whom he thus bade adieu. That single word ‘block’ had sufficed to render possible hundreds of working parties, which to-day would be procuring timber, rope, tools, and provisions. At the same hour on the morrow they would be eagerly commencing a shaft, having previously put in the indispensable four pegs, which, with the more necessary Miner’s Right, secured an unalienable title to the coveted landed estate.
On the next day, the spot so lately void and bare resembled a human rabbit warren. Every where trees were felled. Everywhere the miner was seen, mole like, burying himself in the orthodox narrow shaft, and throwing up the yellow clay which was the upper stratum. In a week the principal street of the village of O’Connell was a mass of gaudy-looking shops, filled with every kind of ware—every third house of course a public house. Vehicles of all kinds crowded the narrow way, and with difficulty threaded the crowd of wayfarers of every age, calling, and nationality. Within a month the four banks were all day long weighing, buying, sifting gold, while bundles of notes and handfuls of sovereigns were handed over the counter with apparently careless confidence.
As soon as the main body of block claims began to bottom, gold flowed in with almost fabulous profusion. And still the rumour grew and increased, until people from the uttermost ends of Australia commenced to leave their ordinary avocations and turn their heads towards the new Eldorado—the great, unprecedented, fabulously rich Liberator Lead near Yatala.
Our party had been exceptionally fortunate. We had No. 4 on the lead. There was neither rock nor water. We had the luck to bottom ‘dead on the gutter,’ that is, immediately over the defunct river, and to find the whole of its long buried bed, with the usual admixture of gravel, sand, and waterworn pebbles, richly studded with gold. Occasionally, indeed, we took several ounces of gold from a single dish of wash-dirt. When it is reckoned that two dishes, in miner’s measurement go to a bucket, and sixty buckets to a load—about a ton of earth—and that half an ounce to the load is thought a rich lead, it may be imagined what properties the Liberator claims were held to be.
Our fortunes were made, we all knew. We had about three years’ work before us before we could bring ‘to grass’ our buried treasure—the sands of this long dead Pactolus of the South.
We were in the proud position of being able to ‘put on wages men,’ or hired miners, at three pounds each per week to assist us. We also bought a ‘whip horse’ for forty-five pounds, which staunch and well-trained animal drew up the precious gravel, and in many ways economised labour. We calculated that if the yield kept up at the present rate, we should clear from fifteen to twenty thousand pounds per man before No. 4 was ‘worked out.’ This was worth waiting and toiling for.
‘Well, Joe,’ said I, one day, ‘this is better than striking in old Grimsby’s forge at the Leys, isn’t it? We’ve got our pile at last.’
‘I doubt it is,’ said he, as he leaned back for a moment, and then sending his pick into the face at which we were working, dislodged a quantity of the precious wash-dirt. ‘We’d never ha’ picked up a “slug” like this at yon old Dibblestowe—not but what I’ve wished myself back there many times.
‘Yes, Joe,’ said I, taking from him the rough red heavy clay-stained lump, which looked like an ordinary bit of conglomerate, but which we knew to be a nugget of almost pure gold, weighing more than fifty ounces, and worth two hundred pounds. ‘This didn’t grow in Farmer Mangold’s turnip fields, did it? I’ve wished myself at the old village, too, I can tell you. However, this is going to pay us for all.’
‘Happen it is!’ he said, ‘and not before it’s time, too. I was getting full about digging, and but for you I’d ha’ ta’en my passage home again, worked it before the mast, long and long ago.’
‘You’ll go home and be a gentleman now, Joe,’ said I. ‘Anyhow, you can buy a big farm or two. You might settle down near the Leys and marry Miss Mangold yet, if she’d have you.’
‘No fear, said Joe, using one of the Australian idioms which he had grafted on to his homely Kentish speech. ‘She’d a niver touched me with a pair of tongs, she was that proud and set up like then. But do’st know what?’ Here he made a pretence of whispering, though, being but the two of us in the ‘drive,’ a hundred feet from air, there was not much chance of being overheard. ‘Jack Thursby told me he believed he seed her at Warraluen.’
‘Jane Mangold at Warraluen? But how did he know anything about her?’
‘Well, she got talking about Dibblestowe Leys, where she lived in England, as she should say. Then he up and told her he come from close about there, and as there was two chaps Harry Pole and Joe Bulder, as was diggin here,—he didn’t know aught about you being a gentleman born,—and how as they come from the same place. Then she gave a sort of cry, and says, “Oh, surely it isn’t Hereward Pole—don’t you tell him I’m here in this hell, for it’s nothing better.” And then, he said, she cried badly, and went on terrible, till Black Ned, as she’s married to, swore at her and threatened to knock her brains out if she didn’t give over. I’d like to a bin there.’
‘Good God,’ said I, ‘and is this the end of pretty, innocent Jane Mangold. How is it we never heard of it before.’
‘Well, this chap, he kept it dark for a bit, but one day he and I was on a bit of a booze, and it all came out. It’s a ‘nation pity, ain’t it now. Jack Thursby said he beats her awful, and some day he’ll be the death of her—and it won’t be the first he’s made away with.’
‘I wonder if we can do anything for her,’ I said. ‘Some day I must take a ride over to Warraluen and see her, though I hardly know how to help her. Still she shall have the offer of my assistance—poor—poor Jane.’
Then I fell to thinking how strangely intermingled our lives had been. More wonderful than any romance it seemed, if we two, who had wandered over the peaceful uplands and oak woods of Dibblestowe Leys, hardly more than boy and girl, should now meet once more again in the far, strange, gold town of Yatala.