The Miner’s Right

Chapter X

Rolf Boldrewood

I HAD NOT, however, much leisure for the indulgence of grief in the matter of poor Gus Maynard, sudden and terrible as had been his fate. For we had no sooner quitted the sorrowful procession which had at length returned from the buried mine-works than Cyrus Yorke, who had been away all day, dashed in with the astounding intelligence, ‘Our claim has been jumped.’ The words were simple, but no addition could have exaggerated their significance.

From the first we had been almost instinctively aware of the framer of the plot which had done us so great an injury, which might even yet compass our ruin. Malgrade was the man whom each tongue amongst us simultaneously named and, with the sole exception of Mrs. Yorke, deeply and vengefully cursed. I am not sure now whether that prudent matron did not utter a wish connected with his prospective condition of existence which sounded less like a prayer than a prophecy. He had bided his time, and had dealt us a shrewd blow. In the long history of human strife, how unwise has it ever been to underrate a foe. Wiser than his fellows was he who said of old, ‘Consider your enemies if you would be safe and strong—heed not your friends.’ And, doubtless, what a coign of vantage has the stealthy, patient-watching brigand over the unsuspecting toilers—the heedless wayfarers of life. Daily, nightly, his thoughts are marshalled solely with a view to the season of opportunity, which sooner or later an ironic fate appears to grant. Thus had it been with us. The blow had found us unprepared. And though we had the ordinary means of defence, we were by no means sure that a joint in our armour would not be discovered, in which case no mercy need be hoped for.

But it was apparent Malgrade was not our sole antagonist. In all privateering on goldfields and other tempting vicinities, the initiated are aware that the alliance of capital with labour is indispensable. In the ‘ebony’ trade and other adventurous semi-mercantile enterprises, as well as Captain Kidd and his merry men, there must be the moneyed speculator, grave possibly, decorous of mien, but nevertheless not unwilling to furnish the outfit of the long low waterwitch of a schooner for a consideration. He ‘planks down’ the dollars requisite for the purchase of prints and necklaces, fetters and gunpowder, rum, small arms, and other necessaries. The crew must be paid and money found for the personal expenses of Captain Kidd as well, unprejudiced commander and thorough seaman that he is. In requital of which by no means paltry outlay a swingeing share of profits, when the middle passage is safely passed and the death-scared sable crowd ‘sold and delivered,’ is cheerfully yielded to the foreseeing man of money.

Such philanthropical individuals, loth to behold energetic men languishing for lack of means, have from the earliest records existed in every land. No more complete microcosm than a goldfield is to be found among human communities. It follows in natural sequence, therefore, that the sleek, remorseless trader in ‘fellow-creatures’ lives’ was not far to seek at Yatala. Our ban-dog, Malgrade, had given him the office; the calculation was simple and reassuring, and the matter being settled with the celerity characteristic of the locale, the funds were instantly forthcoming.

Mr. Isaac Poynter was a stout, florid, voluble personage, whose sleek black hair always shone in such oppressively lustrous fashion as to suggest that in his former trade as a butcher he had contracted the habit of anointing it with suet, and was unable to relinquish the practice now that less inexpensive pomade was accessible. He had followed many trades on various goldfields, including that of unlicensed liquor seller, and having accumulated a considerable capital by the consistent exercise of the strictest dishonesty, had settled down into the ostensible occupation of sharebroker and mining agent, with which elastic vocation he combined those of money-lender, gold-buyer, and receiver of property more or less disputed as to title.

This astute personage, as well as Mr. Algernon aforesaid, honoured our party by a grudge for several reasons hardly necessary to specify. The Major and I, he had been heard to say, were infernal stuck-up swells, who thought themselves too good for the society of parties in trade, while them fellers, Yorke and Bulder, had refused to stand in with him in a little safe speculation, and had had the cheek to offer to kick him off their claim. He’d had it in for ’em, and had settled in his own mind for to give ’em a rough turn some day, and now they’d see who they’d got to deal with.

Long practice of every conceivable evasion of the mining laws had made him familiar with modes by which, without infringing rules, the honest occupant of a claim could be harassed, ousted, besieged, and black-mailed. Any swindling device which Poynter was not acquainted with—and such an acquirement was, in the opinion of the looser members of the field, ‘not worth knowing’ was promptly supplied by Malgrade. It will be easily seen how difficult it was for our straight-going, unsuspicious band to foil the machinations of foes so deliberate and experienced.

The necessary arrangements having been made and the plan of the campaign mapped out with Prussian completeness of detail, nothing remained but to find the requisite number of ‘honest hard-working miners’ who were to be the ostensible actors and moral scapegoats in the affair.

Such men, of course, were to be had. The price was tempting, being no less than a half share each in the claim, if the fortress fell and the condottieri were successful. This was formally made over by legal transfer in the mining registrar’s office, the rank and file being far too experienced to trust their superior’s promise in such an affair. Besides this, it was agreed that they should receive wages at the rate of half the ordinary tariff, amounting to thirty shillings per week, during all the time occupied in professing to work on the ground, attending court, or in any way furthering the plot.

This was but the ordinary custom, and without such a payment the humblest miner on the goldfield would not have given his services. The men, in addition to being average practical workers, required also to be fully experienced in all mining usages and regulations, lest they might be betrayed into any illegal act which might jeopardise their title to the property.

Each detail having been long thought out, was now executed with a precision ‘worthy of a better cause,’ as the apologetic formula runs, doubtless originated by some moralist, wondering in his secret soul why the fiend’s emissaries were always so faultless in drill, so true to their colours, so zealous and so sleepless.

And yet, the outcome of this recondite calculation was the apparently simple and harmless proceeding of four men putting in corner pegs, and going through the form of picking a shovelful of earth from the sand surface of No. 4 Liberator Lead.

Yes, long before that pawn had been advanced upon the chessboard, whereon was to be played such an exceedingly still game with live pieces, many a gambit, many a check and counter-check had been conned over. Money had been lodged in the bank, arrangements had been made for sub dividing shares, for forming a committee, for engaging professional aid, for floating a company, if the need arose.

Mr. Cramp and Dr. Bellair had both received a retaining foe in case of accidents, and with veiled but malignant expectation the chief conspirators awaited the next move.

The requisite period, sacred to the law’s delays, was fulfilled. All needful preliminaries were executed. The day of trial arrived. In all mining causes the method of procedure was this: every case must be tried before the Commissioner, who sat as primary judge. He heard the evidence in full and gave his decision; but in view of the natural impatience of the mere ipse dixit of one man, even a man so widely respected and even feared as the Commissioner of all the southern goldfields, the Parliament of New South Wales in its wisdom had devised a mode of further trial. An appeal lay to a court composed of two or more magistrates of the territory, who were empowered to rehear the whole case, and afterwards to confirm or reverse the previous decision. If still further objection were taken to the verdict, and in any important mining case involving large amounts such proceedings were the rule rather than the exception, a last appeal would be heard before the Supreme Court, by whom the matter was adjudicated upon and finally settled.

Thus it came to pass that we looked despondingly along a vista of legal proceedings on protracted, if probably successful, action, but which was surely fraught with profuse expenditure along the whole line. However, there was nothing for it but to attack the beleaguering force and compel them to raise the siege, or for us to yield up the citadel. The last act we held to be impossible. We had, without an hour’s delay, retained Mr. Markham, soon finding cause to congratulate ourselves upon our promptitude.

Punctual as usual on the appointed day, that gentleman arrived early, smiling and confident of mien. The streets appeared to us to carry an unwonted crowd. Many a miner left his work that day. Captain Blake rode up followed by his dogs, as was his wont, at ten o’clock sharp.

Throwing the rein to his orderly, he entered the court-house, and took his seat upon the bench with a stern and resolved air. He foresaw six hours of steady attention to a series of interminable technical details with which he was already painfully familiar, and all such methods of spending the bright summer days William Blake cordially hated, though, under compulsion, few men more successfully administered the apparently complicated but really equitable and comprehensive mining statutes.

Then, advancing with stately steps, the sergeant caused to be opened the principal door of the court-house. In a few moments it was crowded to the rails which protected the professional gentlemen, the parties to the suit, and the witnesses. Dr. Bellair and Mr. Cramp appeared for the other side. Both editors were in their places when the case—Pole and party versus Ingerstrom and party—was formally called on by the clerk of the Bench.

Mr. Markham stood up at once, and made the opening address.

‘He was not there to defend illegal action; he trusted that he knew too well the principles of law, the requirements of justice, to attempt to pursue a short-sighted policy, whether on the part of his clients or any others. But he would say that a more scandalous outrage upon mining law, goldfields custom, and even the ordinary rules of equity which guided the transactions of society—as between man and man—had, hitherto, not been numbered among his experiences. However, knowing that there was a long day before the Court, he would not detain it further, but proceed to call his witnesses. Harry Pole, go into the box!’

I stepped upon the modern rack, where in this over-civilised age, heartstrings strain and quiver in agony, as that dread agent of the law, ’yclept the barrister, plies probe and scalpel. My operation was simple and painless.

‘Your name is Hereward Pole. You produce your Miner’s Right, of date January 185—, the present year.’

This was done. The important piece of parchment, about the size of a bank cheque, was handed first to the Court, and then to Messrs. Markham and Bellair, by whom it was as closely scrutinised as if, indeed, it had been an informal bank note.

Further judicious examination elicited from me the important facts that ‘I had, on the 10th of August last, about a quarter past six in the morning, in company with Joseph Bulder, Cyrus Yorke, and Edgar Treseder Borlase, generally known as “The Major,” put in a peg, not less than three feet long and three inches in diameter, and had affixed the same in an L trench not less than six feet long and six inches deep on the north-east boundary of the claim of four men’s ground, known as No. 4 Liberator Lead. The three other shareholders mentioned put in similar pegs and cut similar trenches at the same time in my presence. The land was then vacant crown land, there being no one in possession or occupation thereof, or any pegs, shaft, or workings whatever visible. Furthermore, I had within three days thereafter, in company with the other shareholders, commenced to work the claim, now known as No. 4 Liberator, and had assisted to work it without intermission until the trespass by defendants. I had seen the defendant Ingerstrom break the surface of said claim with a pick. This was the trespass complained of.’

This cross-examined by Dr. Bellair: ‘The measurement of the claim No. 4 was so many square feet. It was more than forty feet per man along the base line of the lead. It was not an exact parallelogram, but was of an irregular shape. There was not more than the number of superficial feet allowed by the regulations to a claim of four men’s ground. The Commissioner had formally allotted us this claim soon after the Prospecting Claim struck gold. The quantity of ground so granted to us was not illegal by the regulations, so far as this deponent knew. Would not swear one way or another as to its being illegal to grant a claim in a form different from that laid down in the regulations.’

Here Mr. Markham objected. His learned friend was compelling the witness to answer a question which referred to a matter of law, not of fact. The witness’s opinion as to a point of law was not relevant to the issue. The witness might hold an erroneous opinion as to mining law, or a correct one. In either case his opinion would, he submitted, be valueless as evidence. The Court was not concerned with what he thought with regard to mining law, or any other abstract subject, merely with what he did.

The Commissioner ruled that the question could not be put. As Mr. Markham had stated, ‘the Court did not care a straw whether or not witness had the whole Act and Regulations at his fingers’ ends, only what he did on that tenth day of August last.’

Dr. Bellair differed in toto from his friend Mr. Markham, and was not disposed to accept the dictum of the Court unconditionally. ‘As a Doctor of Medicine, a Doctor of Laws, and a Barrister of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, he held himself entitled to contravene the ruling of any Chairman of a Quarter Sessions, much less a magistrate presiding over an inferior tribunal as was that of a Commissioner’s Court. But he would proceed.’

The Commissioner was gratified to hear that. He was as little disposed to question Dr. Bellair’s legal attainments as to make trial of his medical skill, but he wished him to understand most fully that he, William Devereux Blake, was judge in his own little court, and should demonstrate by prompt and decisive action (to which he trusted, however, that he should have no occasion to resort) that he would permit no disrespect or contempt of court as long as he sat there. He would remind gentlemen that much evidence remained to be taken.

Cross-examination proceeded with: ‘Was certain that his party commenced work on the third day after pegging out No. 4. Had another claim on the Last Stake before that. Was working there till the 6th. Then abandoned it as they all considered the Liberator Lead the better show. Had more than one washing up at No. 4. Dividends were declared. Declined to state how much gold per man was divided. Were satisfied, at any rate, and did not want it stolen from them by defendants, or any other ruffians.’

Witness was here admonished by the Commissioner and told that he was only at liberty to answer questions, and not to refer to the morality of the defendants’ presumed course of action.

Joseph Bulder is likewise sworn. He produces his Miner’s Right of date 1st January 185—, and gives corroborative testimony as to the occupation of No. 4 claim.

Edgar Treseder Borlase, sworn, states: ‘Is a miner, residing at Yatala. Produces Miner’s Right of date 1st January 185—. Assisted in the presence of the two previous witnesses and Cyrus Yorke in taking up the claim known as No. 4. Has worked regularly upon it ever since. Will swear that he has never been away more than a day at a time since they commenced work. If so has been employed in doing work for the benefit of the claim. Is a practical miner; has worked at several other goldfields before coming here. Doesn’t know exactly the number of superficial feet in the claim; believes it to be about the right quantity for four men’s ground. The right quantity would be so and so. If he had time could calculate it easily enough. Am not sure that he could do it accurately here. The Commissioner gave them their claim in that shape, partly because he chose to do so, and partly because in no other way, since the base line was swung, could they get their fair proportion of ground. Did not think that defendants acted otherwise than as—’

‘Thanks, Major,’ this from Mr. Markham. ‘I will not trouble you any further.’

‘Cross-examined by Dr. Bellair: ‘Was formerly in the army, in the 77th Regiment. Have seen some service. Was not in any way compelled to quit the army. Would have knocked down any man who asked him this offensive question outside this Court, but was aware that it was his duty to treat all persons in that Court with becoming respect. Trusted that the learned counsel would assist him by his line of cross-examination in so doing. Did not wish to answer questions upon other than mining transactions. Was a miner here in every sense of the word, and expected miners’ treatment—that of honourable consideration and manly fair play.’

(Slight signs of gallery approval promptly suppressed.)

Amos Burton called: ‘Is the holder of a Miner’s Right, but at present does wood carting. Was in the vicinity of No. 4, Liberator Lead, very early on 10th August, in the morning, and there saw the last witness and three other men marking out a claim. It might be No. 3, or No. 4. They took their time over it, and hammered in their pegs, and dug trenches all ship-shape and reg’lar. Saw no one there before they came. Believed the land to be vacant. Do not know the shape of the claim. Only, if any one took it up according to the regulations, these men did and no mistake.’ (Is directed by the Court not to volunteer his opinion upon legal points.) ‘Anyhow they were in occupation.’

Cross-examined by Dr Bellair: ‘Is not a friend of the last witness, or the party, that is, not partic’lar. Knows Harry Pole, remember him at Cold Point. The Major was there, too. Always believed in ’em as legitimate diggers. Diggers will take advantage sometimes if they can work it with the regulations and the ground’s good. Wouldn’t do so himself—that is, not unless it was a “clean jump,” and the wash was A 1.’

Ah Sing, storekeeper and general dealer, is next called, and sworn by blowing out a match, repeating after the clerk of the court a formula declaratory of the fact that, if he do not now speak the truth his soul will perish as that match is blown out: ‘Was on such a day on the line near Liberator Lead. Wantee catchee that one piecee horsee dlive em cart Milliwa velly early morning—sun come up allee samee wantee breakfast. See Hally Pole, Joe, Major, and ’nother man—big man—peg out claim, altogether. See um put in pegs, dig tlench, quite esure, no foolee me, allee samee digger. Know digger way, catchee claim once Myer Flat.’

Cross-examined: ‘Digger buy things my shop, little boy, old woman, young woman, allee samee Ah Sing. Suppose catchee money, suppose swear lie, go to hellee quick, same as Doctor and evlybody.’ (Is requested by the Court not to include professional gentlemen in his theories of future punishment) to which he replies, ‘All lightee, Doctor stop at home, no tell lie. Ah Sing no tell lie, Commish’ner. Commish’ner shutee up bad Chinaman, logs, my word.’ Being asked if he knows anything about the present mining regulations, replies, ‘Me plenty savee, Hally Pole takee up No. 4, and that Dutchy man, plenty jumpee. No more savee.’

Mr. Markham submitted that their heathen friend had shown his ability to take a comprehensive grasp of the nature of the suit. (Laughter.)

Dr. Bellair would not further examine this witness, whose evidence he regarded as either venal or wholly untrustworthy for want of intelligence and sense of moral responsibility.

Cyrus Yorke is called. He walks up through the closely-packed crowd, who, partly knowing him as a shareholder in the claim, and one of the parties to this cause célèbre, make way for him as he slowly marches up, squaring his vast shoulders, and taller by the head than the audience, composed though it be of men of more than average stature. But Cyrus stands as near seven feet as six in the Wellington boots which he always adopts for great occasions; weighing besides over seventeen stone, below which the hardest of regular work does not reduce him. He is not a man to be jostled in any congregation, however dense. As he walks forward to-day, neatly dressed in suitable garments, he is the very pink of cleanliness, and does full justice to Mrs. Yorke’s talents as a laundress. His linen is spotless as that of a crack espada among the bull-fighters of Valencia. A grand specimen of Anglo-Saxon manhood is Cyrus, as developed by the kindly conditions of Australian life. I cannot help contrasting him with the ordinary specimens of the English farm labourers, from which he is sprung. Generations of un-remitting toil, privation, and anxiety for the morrow, had in most of these instances stamped a look of almost painful endurance indelibly upon form and features, writing them down as hewers of wood and drawers of water, adscripti glebæ born thralls of a higher race and a more favoured class. But this man’s external presentment bore the record of years spent in easily borne tasks and well-requited effort, of long intervals of repose and recreation, of seasons of pleasant social intercourse and free independent action.

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