The Miner’s Right

Chapter XIII

Rolf Boldrewood

TIME, which brings all things to an end, and which had never passed so slowly for us before, even in our worst ‘tucker’ days, brought on the hearing of our appeal. It was heard before four magistrates in petty sessions assembled; and the whole weary evidence taken over again without the omission of a single detail. It certainly was a fact that Cyrus Yorke’s being now the proud possessor of a Miner’s Right led the opposite side to dwell with less persistent energy upon that point. But on the other hand they devoted the whole strength of their resources to bring out in strong relief their other allegation, viz. that the irregularity of the shape of our claim constituted a fatal objection.

An appeal lay to two or more magistrates under the Goldfields Act of 30 Victoria, No. 8 (long since repealed), and was not so much an appeal upon certain clearly defined points of law as a total re-hearing of the whole case at issue. Hence the defeated party, generally being shrewd enough to discover the weak point of their evidence the first trial, not unfrequently took measures to strengthen that precise gabion or outwork when the appeal was heard. No doubt in some parts of the land the magistrates of the territory, not familiarly acquainted with mining law, constituted a wholly unsatisfactory tribunal before which to decide such delicate details and complicated issues. But the Justices at Yatala had been so thoroughly trained by a long series of mining cases and appeals during years past, involving vast sums and most important consequences, that the more important personages of the higher courts were hardly better up in the rule of evidence and the statutory necessities of their position.

So the whole lengthy evidence was fully and patiently heard; no detail was omitted; the irregular shape of the claim, and the number of superficial feet which it measured, must have been as well known to the habitues of the Court as a catch sum in arithmetic to the boys of a public school at examination time.

At nightfall the magistrates retired to confer among themselves. And after a quarter of an hour’s council delivered their decision by the mouth of the chairman. The appeal was dismissed with seventy-five pounds costs against the appellants.

All recourse had now been exhausted but one. Of that one, however, our antagonists were determind to avail themselves.

Furious at defeat, and with a few sarcastic sentences reflecting upon the legal capacity of the magistrates, for which he was promptly called to order, the Doctor at once hurled his last challenge at our heads in the form of a notice of appeal to the Supreme Court.

He was informed that he could do so in the manner set forth in the regulations, by naming the points upon which he desired to appeal, and by lodging a sum of money as guarantee for the costs of the respondents in the event of the appeal being dismissed.

Money was still forthcoming, it appeared, as these expensive preliminaries were at once complied with.

Thus for the second time we were victorious. As we left the Court amid the congratulations of the crowd, Mr. Markham cheerfully asked the Doctor if he had made arrangements for sending the case home to the Privy Council after the Supreme Court had decided against him?

Frowning darkly, he replied that, ‘It was not so very certain that he might not be compelled to take that step also. He had had reason to distrust the law of colonial judges before now.’

Here the crowd cheered him, evidently pleased with his indomitable courage. And we went straight to our claim, and put on a shift before midnight.

A week at least must elapse before the judge in chambers—in his metropolitan seclusion—could be moved to grant an injunction to further restrain us from working until the last appeal should be tried. We therefore concluded to make hay while the sun shone, or rather to dig gold while the coast was clear. To that end we put on a crowd of wages men, who extracted such a ceaseless output of washdirt that our foes used to come to the claim and declare that nothing would be left of their inheritance, so to speak, if we were not stopped.

The Doctor tried the Commissioner and the magistrates for a restraining order, offering to make affidavit that bloodshed would ensue. But the former said if a few rascally, loafing jumpers were knocked on the head it would matter little. And the other men in authority had doubts as to the legality of any but judicial interference at this stage of proceedings.

One fine day, though, an imposing document, with the judge’s sign-manual appended thereto, did make its appearance, and was duly served upon us; but before it arrived we had washed several machines of dirt, and extracted the best part of two thousand pounds in hard cash from the ‘mining tenement’ in dispute.

‘Yon dirt goes better and better every load,’ said Joe Bulder. ‘Danged if I don’t chuck that Doctor down a wet shaft if we’re muddled about much langer a’ this fashion.’

There was nothing for it, however, but to sling up the rawhide buckets, and put No. 4 out of commission once more. It was hard, too, to see even other claims along the lead, with their red flags flaunting in the breeze, and the whip-horses hauling steadily at their ascending loads, or trolling back briskly and kicking playfully when the descending rope permitted such gambols.

We had, perforce, to endure more wearisome monotonous inaction and delay. Our appeal case in the Supreme Court was set down for hearing at the end of a crowded session, as luck would have it, and immediately before the long vacation. Australian judges are, as a rule, worked very hard, and have not the leisure of their European brethren. At this particular time the course of litigation, consequent upon an unprecedented period of inflowing wealth, had well-high exhausted the metropolitan bench, the bar, and even the sufficiently numerous solicitors. Two or three stupendous squatting actions, notably the great Terri-hi-hi Creek case, had swallowed up the last remnant of that admittable patience and attention to minutest details which so honourably distinguishes the British wearer of the ermine.

To the passionate grief and indignation of Dr. Bellair, who stopped but little short of a threat of impeachment before the British Houses of Parliament, the great appeal case in Pole and party v. Ingerstrom and party, which was beginning to be in all men’s mouths, the value of the claim in dispute being variously stated from a hundred thousand pounds to a quarter of a million, was not brought on before the close of the session.

So it was left stranded with other forlorn argosies, and compelled to abide the humble position of remanet.

We were hardly less disgusted than our enthusiastic opponent that his frantic adjurations had beaten themselves vainly against the rock of judicial imperturbability. Whatever were we to do for the three or four, possibly six, months which would probably intervene before we could put a pick again into the tantalisingly rich washdirt of No. 4? How were we to spend our money or our lives in this confounded Yatala, thrice-read volume that it was to all of us?

Events follow quickly in those new lands upon which the Southern Cross looks down from the untroubled skies, fortunately for those sons of hazard and adventure, for whom the measured march of the old world has ever been too tame. I had wandered listlessly homeward one evening from a long day’s walk, more than usually depressed with the thought that the waters of evil fortune were closing darkly over our heads in spite of our transient gold gleam, when I was struck by the unwonted appearance of activity displayed by the Major.

Our premises also had undergone a temporary alteration. The tent was down; various articles of furniture were assuming their well-known travelling appearance. Joe Bulder was briskly busied in abetting the transformation of everything into light marching order. Suddenly I became conscious of an unwonted hum as of earnest voices amongst our circumjacent acquaintances. I began to recognise the symptoms of the complaint.

It was not for the first time that I had known a great goldfield infected by it. Forms were flitting about in the gathering twilight, lanterns were being lit in preparation for night work. Horses were driven-up, the hobble chains and bells of which sounded their continuous characteristic chime. A word from time to time caught my ear, in which ‘The Oxley,’ ‘Only a hundred and odd miles,’ ‘Five ounces to the dish,’ ‘Good sinking,’ ‘All block claims,’ were increasingly distinct.

Before I stopped at the spot of earth which had been immediately before our own tent door, I was fully aware of the cause of the unwonted agitation which characterised the night.

A rush was on and a big one at that, as I heard an American digger inform his mate.

‘You’re a good fellow, Pole,’ said the Major, ‘in your way—a man of high principles and irreproachable morals; but these infernally long walks amount to a defect in your character. Here have we been sounding boot and saddle all day, and couldn’t get “tale or tidings of you,” as Mrs. Yorke says. Lend a hand with this cord. Do you want to put anything else in this box of yours? I’ve packed it for you.’

‘I’ll see in the morning,’ I said. ‘Where’s the rush?’

Where’s the rush?’ echoed the Major, still tugging away at an obstinate cord with which he was securing a very bulging and battered portmanteau. ‘Have you been in a cave all day? or where in heaven can you have deposited yourself not to have heard of the Great Rush to the Oxley—the biggest thing that’s happened in Australia yet, and that’s going to knock Ballarat and Bendigo into a cocked hat?’

‘So good as that?’ I queried languidly.

‘Good!’ shouted the Major. ‘Nothing ever heard like it, even in California or Eaglehawk. Three ounces, five ounces, ten ounces to the dish, regular chunks of gold, no rock, no water. All shallow sinking and block claims; none of your confounded frontage, all law and humbug. I like the good old-fashioned blocks—when you get it, you get it and no mistake. There won’t be a soul on the field in a week, except those who are on real good gold. And it must be good to keep fellows here after what we’ve heard.’

‘How about No. 4; give it away?’

‘No, most noble stoic, we are not exactly going to do that, badly as we have been treated by luck, law, and litigation. You and I and Joe are going “right away,” as poor Gus would have said, and Cyrus will remain and be the dragon on guard.’

‘I suppose we must start at daylight? It’s a great nuisance,’ I said, ‘having this kind of thing to do over again.’

‘You haven’t gone mad by any chance,’ said the Major, taking a light and peering into my face, ‘as the defendant in Racker v. Smith did? A ten thousand pound claim was something to lose when all the world knew that he was in the right. No, we haven’t quite lost No. 4 yet, in spite of the Doctor and all his works. But softening of the brain must be setting in, or you would never think of losing an hour, much less a whole night, when there’s a rush like this on. No, we’ve hired a spring-cart and horse by the day, and the fellow will be here with it when the moon rises. You’ll have to look slippy.’

You seem in a wonderful state of sanguine anticipation, Major,’ I made answer; ‘one would think you were totally unfamiliar with the chance of digging life. Doesn’t it strike you that our ordinary luck will attend us—all the best claims will be taken up before we get there, or we shall most industriously bottom a duffer, or having by the strangest fluke dropped on to the gutter, it will be proved incontestibly that some one has a better right to it. I am sick of the whole thing. I’ll stay and shepherd No. 4, and you can take Cyrus and Joe.’

‘You be hanged! you’re malingering, and I want to shake the blues out of you. You’ll be all right in a week. Besides, think of the glorious novelty of the whole affair. We’re both ready to hang ourselves here. I don’t believe there’s a book I haven’t read within fifty miles. And I ask you as a brother officer and a gentleman—I mean as a man and a digger, what are we to do till that blessed Supreme Court appeal is heard?’

‘All right,’ I murmured, ‘I have no preference, as people in the provinces say about roast fowls at dinner. Who is the Commissioner?’

‘Blake himself, no less—ordered off at a moment’s notice. They think there’s no other man in the service can handle such a crowd as is likely to be camped on the Oxley within three months. Nor is there, by what we hear. He’ll have his work cut out for him, too, they say. There are vessels laid on from San Francisco already.’

‘It will realise Mick Hord’s mild exaggeration of a rush with forty thousand men. I say, are Merlin and the sergeant and all the rest coming too?’

‘Everybody but the Clerk of the Bench they say. There’s a new one appointed there, a fellow just out from England. Goring wrote me about him; stammers a bit, but a great character they tell me. A deal of daring originality about him. I look forward to him as a kind of compensation in the circulating library line.’

‘Going to keep Joe Bulder?’

‘Not for long; he must come back and help Cyrus do nothing, more’s the pity; but we can’t trust the noble Persian’s discretion; and Joe’s head is a very good one, if he’d had any encouragement early in life to use it instead of his hands.’

The moon rose, the cart came, and we went. Nothing was placed in the vehicle but our indispensables in the way of clothes, bedding, our simple cooking utensils, and of course our tools. The road lay under our feet in the clear moonlight, white and dusty, between the withered grass and the tall tree-stems. The air was fresh. The heavens brightly azure. The horse was active and powerful, and his owner, well paid, drove briskly forward.

There was little trouble in finding the road, which led through the park-like forest which surrounded Yatala to the plains of the Oxley, on the head-waters of which this last-found Eldorado had arisen. Had we felt any uncertainty it would have been quickly removed, for in front, behind, on every side were wayfarers journeying to the same goal, of every kind, in every sort of conveyance, with every description of animal.

Bullock drays and horse drays, American express waggons, hand-carts drawn by men, and even wheelbarrows propelled by sturdy arms containing all the household goods of a family. Women laden with immense bundles were dragging young children by the hand, or as often carrying infants at their bosoms.

Sometimes a drove of cattle with wild riders behind them would come silently and all ghostly in the moonlight upon the strangely hurrying crowd. As silently, too, retreat, only to move parallel with, but far distant from, the disturbing concourse, whose physical needs they were destined to supply.

The whole movement had the appearance of something between a pilgrimage and a fair suddenly cut adrift from its moorings, and compelled to travel forward in grotesque procession to another land. So mixed and incongruous did the component parts appear. So unsuited and unusual to the rude travelling that was imminent, the yet ruder labour to come. I should have enjoyed the humorous contrasts of the scene, but hope deferred had indeed rendered the heart sick—sick unto death, with a despondency as new as oppressive, with a sombre presentiment I tried in vain to shake off.

We travelled day and night, only allowing ourselves needful rest and food, and bearing hard upon the good horse that carried our chattels. On the sixth day we reached the Oxley, and had a free and uninterrupted view of the Great Rush.

It was a strange sight. We, who had seen many goldfields, had never seen one exactly like this before.

The auriferous deposit had been so exceedingly rich in one particular point or cape of land which ran into the river that an unprecedented density of mining settlement had taken place there. This was the famous ‘jeweller’s shop,’ where the very earth seemed composed of gold dust, with gold gravel for a variety. Thousands and tens of thousands of pounds worth of the ore had been taken out of a few square feet here, and no blanks had been drawn for many yards immediately around.

We were fortunate in meeting a friend we had known in Ballarat, who immediately gave us the carte du pays.

He himself was such a man as one meets at goldfields, in the islands of the South Seas, in the desert, or in London, indifferently and apparently without any particular reason why he should be in one place more than another. But chiefly in the waste places of the earth, though he was as much at home in a West-End drawing-room as here where we found him, darkly handsome and cool as ever, leaning against a tall tree trunk, smoking a carefully coloured meerschaum, and gazing tranquilly upon the curious human mass below.

‘Olivera, as I live! who in the world would have thought of seeing you here?’ said the Major.

‘My dear fellow,’ said the stranger slowly and impressively, ‘this is precisely the place where you should have been certain of finding me. Haven’t I been at every great rush since California in ’49?’

‘Well, yes, I believe you have; you’re a sort of auriferous wandering Jew. And what does your peripatetic wisdom think of this small assortment of the excellent of the earth. And hadn’t we better join forces?’

‘This will be one of the richest goldfields I have ever set eyes on. My geology and experience are both at fault, if it be not so. But I will not join you, for I have been so uniformly unlucky that I believe there is a fate involved in it.’

‘Oh, that’s all humbug, luck turns; try again.’

‘Mine will turn, but not yet. I shall go on mining to my life’s end, for my spirit has never yet yielded to evil fortune; but no party that I have ever joined has ever been successful, now these many long years, and I will never more share with others my disasters. I dig, as Harry of the Wynd fought, for my own hand. I have a claim, though, worked by wages men; and I will point out to you what I think a very favourable conjunction of strata.’

‘All right, old man. We bow to your superior wisdom, and place ourselves in your hands—drive on the cart.’

We skirted the great throbbing hive of eager workers spurred up by greed and gain to such desperate efforts that an unnatural silence reigned over the scene. Even their looks were changed. Instead of the frank expression of the ordinary miner, always ready for a little cheerful conversation, these men looked like the worn and troubled artisans of a great factory, where an untimely lassitude or carelessness might lead to the rupture of machinery or the danger of dismissal.

We went down, however, with Olivera to the spot which he pointed out, near which, indeed, his own claim was situated, and under his auspices pegged out four men’s ground.

‘You see,’ he said, ‘this is a place where the greenstone and the granite meet. In such a conjunction there is always gold, and heavy gold too.’

‘But it was unoccupied before we came. Why did you not take possession of it yourself? You could not know that friends were coming either?’

‘My dear boy, if I had taken it up, there would not have been gold in it. My luck would have prevented that highly desirable result.’

After pegging out our claim, we addressed ourselves to the task of putting up our tent and making ourselves comfortable for the time being.

We had forty-eight hours in which to arrange matters before we were required by law to go to work, so that there was time to spare. We had also to get hold of a fourth man as mate and shareholder, not so easy a matter in a community of strangers.

We wanted a man who could work, also one that would be reasonably easy to live with. A high moral standard we should not insist on; but neither did we care to be troubled with a dissolute rowdy or a drunkard.

The man with the spring cart had been paid off after depositing our baggage, and was taking a reconnoitring tour preparatory to returning to his family at Yatala.

We had put up our tent, and firmly secured it with pegs and ropes against wind or weather. We were standing aimlessly watching the unceasing crowd that passed to and fro, like ghosts in an Inferno, when Joe suddenly uttered a strongish ejaculation, and relapsed into the Kentish idiom.

‘Danged if I didn’a think I should see ’un some day, and it’s coomed at last.’

‘See who, Joe?’ I asked.

‘Why him,’ quoth my henchman, strongly excited. ‘Dost see yon man a talking th’ chap in th’ red shirt and high boots. That un’s brother Jack, sure enow.’

It had always seemed to us a curious thing that we should never have met with Mr. Jack Bulder in the flesh, though his memorable letter and remittance had been the proximate cause of our emigration. We had heard of him repeatedly, sometimes at one place, sometimes at another—in Queensland, Victoria, New Zealand by turns; but always something had interfered to prevent his looking up his brother during all the years that both had been in Australia.

I turned and saw a good-looking, well-dressed individual, who did not carry out my pre-conceived notion of a forecastle Jack. It was he, nevertheless. I watched Joe Bulder go up to him and say something which caused him to turn round sharply. I saw both men confront and look steadily at each other. Then followed a sturdy hand-clasp, which was all the greeting beyond ‘Well, Jack, is’t thou old man,’ ‘Why, Joe, I never thought you’ld turn out half as smart a fellow,’—which was considered necessary by the emigrant Britons after fifteen years’ absence. They walked over towards me.

‘This is my brother Jack, Mr. Pole, him as wrote the letter, as I show’d you at Dibblestowe forge,’ said Joe, with some effort and shyness. ‘You’ll remember it.’

‘I remember it well enough, Joe,’ I said, ‘but for it you and I would never have been here. I hope your brother has more to show for his time than some of us.’

‘Glad to see you, sir,’ said Mr. Jack Bulder, raising his hat, and discovering by his address that the university of travel had sufficed to impart a polish to which Joe had not attained. ‘You’re Mr. Pole that my brother came out with. It’s a good sign, he’s stuck by you so long.’

‘It has spoken well for both of us,’ said I, ‘we have been firm friends and true mates all this time. And now, what do you think of this rush?’

‘It’s the best I’ve seen yet,’ he said promptly. ‘And I saw Ballarat at the start. I’ve been here since the prospector struck gold. I happened to be working in a gully nigh hand when the news came.’

‘And how have you done?’

‘Well, not so bad. Our party’s just broke up, because we worked out the claim. We divided four hundred and fifty a man for three weeks’ work.’

‘That’s good, isn’t it,’ said Joe; ‘worth picking up, eh?’

‘Pretty fair,’ said the experienced miner, ‘but nothing to what some of ’ems doing. I’ve banked my share, and I’m looking out to nip in again—while the market’s up.’

‘You can have a share in the claim which we’ve just pegged out,’ said I. ‘We want a fourth man, and were, indeed, looking out for one.’

‘Whereabouts is it?’

‘Close by here—near that greenstone dyke.’

‘Oh, if it’s there, I’m on. I had some notion of that spot myself; it’s as likely a place as anywhere on the field. Now Joe, you and I can wire in and see which is the best man.’

‘I’m on,’ answered Joe, a ray of humour irradiating his honest countenance. ‘I could’na work alongside o’ thee when thou wast at Dibblestowe. But I reckon I can handle a pick with thee or any other man, now.’

This, of course, was a very fortunate concurrence of events. We had secured a really first-rate worker, and a man of experience on the field. Besides, I took much interest in him, as a brother of Joe’s, one of the best and truest fellows that ever broke bread.

The Major, returning after a long talk with Olivera, was pleased to find that we had secured so good a mate. He went through the form of touching the pegs, to ensure strictly legal possession. (A burnt child, etc.) The brothers went away together, presumably to have a good talk, as Englishmen ever do, and unburden their minds.

Soon after daylight next morning they returned, bringing with them on a pack horse Jack’s tent and worldly possessions, including various mining tools, and other articles more or less useful. This was a convenient arrangement for us, as the brothers agreeing to keep house together, the Major and I had the other tent to ourselves.

Little time was lost in preliminaries. The sun was not high before we had our stage and windlass up, and were delving away at mother earth as if we intended to solve the question of her central fires.

We were none of us new at the trade; there was a certain emulation between the patrician and plebeian element, for we worked in pairs. We were all young and in top condition. The consequence was, we got down at such a pace that more than one of the daily arriving parties stopped, all eager as they were, to wonder at the rapidity with which our beautifully straight and even shaft was boring, as if with a gigantic auger, towards the bed rock.

Olivera used to come and gaze at us, and then go back and inspirit his wages men with tales of our prowess, they naturally not being quite so anxious to strain every nerve in an enterprise in which they were less directly interested.

Though they had a week’s start of us, we bottomed on the same day, and by nightfall the field was aware that Olivera’s half-share men had bottomed another duffer, and that Pole and party, from Yatala, were so ‘dead on the gutter’ that every dish they took out was half gold.

The Miner’s Right - Contents    |     Chapter XIV

Back    |    Words Home    |    Rolf Boldrewood Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback