He had pegged out on the 10th August with me, the Major, and Joe Bulder. He had assisted to commence work three days afterwards, and worked and occupied the claim without intermission until those four scoundrels, with other scoundrels backing them, whose names he did not know, but might find out some day, ‘jumped’ it.
Is told by the Commissioner that he must not refer to the moral tone of any of the parties to the suit. Replies that, as an honest man, he can’t help it. Is assured by the Commissioner that his honesty will land him presently in the lock-up for twenty-four hours for disrespect of court, upon a repetition of the offence. Cyrus grumblingly subsides.
Is certain that there was no person in occupation when he and his mates took it up legally, and in proper digger fashion. If they have no right to it, no claim on this field is properly taken up.
Mr. Markham asks the well-meaning blundering giant no more questions.
The Doctor, with a look of evil triumph, rises quickly, looks at Cyrus with a vivisecting eye. In a voice of terrific acerbity, he thus began—
‘Produce your Miner’s Right, Mr. Cyrus Yorke, if you have such a document.’
There was a moment’s ominous pause, during which the whole Court, to the smallest gamin, was pervaded by an intense, almost painful interest. The spectators stirred and leaned over towards the witness, silently gazing upon him as he was about to speak the words which, if in the negative, would seal the doom of the claim. Here was a man who, out of his own mouth, was perhaps about to convict himself of a breach of the law, which would have the tremendous consequences of depriving his party of the prize actually within their grasp—the well-earned reward of years of toil, hardship, suffering. Only for the sake of ten shillings, too. That was the price of a Miner’s Right for the first half of the year. After June it was reduced to a crown. A claim worth fifty, sixty, perhaps a hundred thousand pounds was going to be lost or held before their eyes, for half a sovereign, and a shilling’s worth of trouble! It was, indeed, as more than one bronzed, weather-beaten spectator remarked under his breath, ’as good as a play.’
And was there no natural pity, no trace of sympathy among the hearts of those who saw the blow, so crushing, so disastrous, about to fall upon comrades by whose side many had worked, with whom they had interchanged the simple offices of goldfields’ friendship, who had tended one another sick and wounded, who had knelt by the grave of each other’s dead, who knew that the man about to speak had a true wife and prattling children to be helped or beggared by the upshot? Truth to tell, the excitement of the spectacle much outweighed the interest, and almost obliterated the sympathy.
For the rest—the miner belongs to a class with whom the gambling element has ever been strong, even to apparent madness. In his ordinary avocation he places upon the cast his health, his fortune, his life, and, possibly, the food and shelter of his wife and children, whom let no man say that he loves less passionately and enduringly than his more stationary fellow labourer.
But he is accustomed, from the commencement of his perilous trade, to see fortunes approach with dazzling nearness, then—
‘like the Borealis race.|
Flit ere you can point their place.’
He has seen the treasure which was to crown and justify life’s toil, an existence of desperate adventure and untold hardship, so often missed by a hair’s-breadth, that he has lost the faculty of wonder and pity at such mere daily occurrences. He is not hard-hearted, few men less so, only he is prone to regard all human effort and temporal reward as the direct concomitants of the world’s grand demon ‘Luck.’—All other explanation seems to him futile.
So it might be our luck to lose this claim, the richest on the lead, the best on the field, a fortune to each shareholder. As surely it might be another ‘crowd’s’ luck to get it—they, and their backers, the secret partners and abettors in this conspiracy, who ‘stood in’ with the actual operators, and found the cash for these very expensive law proceedings, which, of course, the actual jumpers, men of straw, could not furnish.
‘Will you produce your Miner’s Right, witness, I ask you again?’ thundered the irascible doctor.
There was not the slightest variation from his usual sleepy monotone, not a change in his leonine countenance as Cyrus placidly answered.
‘I haven’t got one—leastways, I haven’t got it here.’
A suppressed sound, half sigh half groan, proceeded in a muffled involuntary way from the great assemblage at the fatal announcement.
‘What do you mean then,’ demanded the triumphant advocate, ‘by occupying crown lands, and illegally mining for gold thereon with your companions, without a shadow of title? Answer me, do you hear?’
‘I apprehend, Doctor Bellair,’ said the Commissioner, ‘that such a question is not relevant material to the issue. The Court is only concerned with facts. The witness’s opinion as to the legality of his previous acts does not touch the point at issue.’
‘I ask, Mr. Commissioner, do you disallow the question I have just asked?’
‘Most certainly, for the reason I have just given,’ said the Commissioner, with cheerful promptitude.
The Doctor gnashed his teeth, figuratively, and thus proceeded—
‘Do you know, then, where your Miner’s Right is?’
‘I do not.’
‘Will you swear, then, where you saw it last, or will you swear that you have one at all?’
The witness declared that ‘he would do nothing either one way or the other. That he might, or he might not, have a Miner’s Right. Anyhow, he had not got it then, in Court, that day—they must make the best of it.’
And here Cyrus looked defiantly round upon the crowd, with the air of the lion caught in the toils.
‘I don’t know that I need go any further with this case, your worship?’ said the Doctor, with an air of the calmest assumption. ‘The whole case is perfectly plain. The occupation is bad—has been illegal from the first, and—’
‘I must protest against my learned friend making his speech upon the merits of the case at this stage of the proceedings,’ said Mr. Markham. ‘He never was more mistaken in his life, if he thinks he is approaching a verdict for his clients.’
The real fact was, that Mr. Markham had, after hearing the damaging admission of Cyrus Yorke, given up all for lost, as far as it was in the indomitable nature of the man to do so. But he thought it due to himself and his clients to repudiate all likelihood of so dire a catastrophe, and to suspend his judgment till the evidence had been exhausted on both sides.
The Commissioner was of the same opinion. But years of experience, marking thousands of involved cases, had taught him the necessity of wearing the legend audi alteram partem close to his heart, metaphorically. He therefore said, ‘If you have any witnesses, Doctor, I shall prefer to hear them.’