There was no hill or dale within miles of the Commissioner’s tents but was covered with tents and huts. The forest was crowded with grazing horses and working oxen. At night the vast illuminated area resembled an army encamped, an illusion to which the not infrequent rattle, as of musketry, as the miners discharged their firearms and loaded afresh, lent a reality.
When, in addition to the legitimate mining population, it was known that by far the greater number of the bad characters and escaped criminals from all the colonies had flocked hither in aid of whatever contingent might arrive from foreign sources, it may be guessed what a task lay before the officials in maintaining order and good government.
Certainly, trifling reinforcements had arrived, in the shape of more police, as also a couple of sub-commissioners, who, under Captain Blake’s guidance, adjudicated in the less important cases which now arose in endless succession.
An escort, duly organised, left the camp weekly, with such an amount of gold stowed away in iron-bound boxes as would have gone far to induce the buccaneers in old Morgan’s day to have landed at Sydney and marched across the continent for the express purpose of securing it. All things were apparently working fairly well in groove and gear, yet were there not wanting signs that awoke doubt in the minds of those who, like us, had for long years ‘followed the diggings.’
‘Strangers and pilgrims,’ of all kinds and castes, were now so common that we should not have been a whit surprised to see the Cham of Tartary or the Sandjiack of Bosnia, each attended by a select body-guard in chain-mail, ride down Regent Street, as our main arterial thoroughfare, miles long, and crowded on every foot of frontage with shops and dwellings, was designated. Nothing was more common than to see tourists, whose every expression of speech and apparel showed their total want of connection with the community, appear and disappear after a short sojourn with magic suddenness.
One Sunday morning, resting from our labours, the Major and I were at the camp, enjoying the rare luxury of a little causerie with the Commissioner and his subalterns, when we remarked four horsemen passing the outer edge of the palisades towards a track which led adown and across a ford in the river.
Not ordinary bushmen, they were sufficiently near the type to be recognised as Australians by people of our experience. Their lounging seat upon their horses, yet with a certain air of litheness and instinctive ease not so observable in riders of European birth, settled the question in our minds. More than one wore the loose cloak or wrap of stout woollen cloth, now commencing to be in common use, borrowed from the wild horsemen of the Pampas, and hence known as ‘ponchos.’ Another peculiarity which did not escape our notice was, the unusually high quality of the horses they rode.
‘Come here, sergeant,’ said the Captain, motioning to that veteran, who at a short distance was intently observing the cortége, ‘did you ever see any of those fellows before? I don’t like the look of them. Depend upon it, they are after no good.’
The sergeant saluted with due precision, and, standing very erect, thus delivered himself—
‘Well known to the police, Captain, every mother’s son of them! The man on the black horse is Frank Lardner. The big man next him is Ben Wall, one’s a Victorian native, the other hails not far from Yedden Mountain; both have been up for cattle and horse stealing, “done time,” too. I don’t see O’Rourke. There’s Gilbert Hawke and young Daly—dangerous characters, the whole lot.’
‘And can’t you d-d-do anything t-t-to them?’ said Mr. Bagstock. ‘L-l-lock ’em up or anything as a c-c-caution; pour encourager l-l-l-les autres, you know.’
‘No charge against any of them at present, eh sergeant?’ said the Commissioner. ‘No warrant?’
‘Not so much as a summons, Captain, or sureties for the peace—or it would be a grand chance entirely to take the lot. I know where they’re going to-night; and I’m as sure as we stand here that there’s some villainy in the wind, if we could only get to hear of it in time.’
‘P-p-prevention’s better than c-c-cure,’ said Mr. Bagstock, oracularly. ‘I should l-l-lay them by the h-h-heels now, before they’ve d-d-done anything.’
‘Must act legally, my dear fellow,’ said the Commissioner, smiling; ‘we can’t go beyond a reasonable amount of benevolent despotism in a British colony. The law must be respected, and the liberty of the subject.’
‘What’s the g-g-good of their being s-s-subjects, if you c-c-can’t take away their liberty?’ argued the advocate, somewhat before his age, of the yet undeveloped Jingoism. ‘L-l-lock ’em up n-n-now, Commissioner, all for their g-g-good.’
As we thus discussed their characters and prospects, a turn of the road brought the free companions in front of where we were standing. One and all looked steadily at our group; the leading horseman, indeed, touching his hat in a natural and unstudied way as they rode by. I could not but admire, after a fashion, the well-knit muscular figures, the keen, alert, hunter-like appearance of these probable bandits. The careless abandon of their horsemanship gave them a kind of picturesque air not wholly devoid of romance, and I wished them from my heart a better fate.
‘Morituri te salutant, O Proconsul!’ murmured the Major. ‘I suppose all these fellows will be shot or hung within the next year or two.’
‘Very highly probable, indeed,’ answered Blake. ‘And before that desirable event takes place, it will have cost the lives of better men. It is a thousand pities I can’t take Bagstock’s advice. In some countries that I have been in there would have been a way of managing a lettre de cachet for such known desperadoes.’
‘I suppose trial by jury and all that kind of thing agrees best with the British constitution in the long run,’ said the Major, ‘but depend upon it there’s nothing like martial law at a pinch. The time may come when we shall be glad to resort to it here.’
‘Things are not so bad as all that,’ said the Commissioner. ‘Rather a serious row between the Donegals and the Cornishmen on the South Lead last Sunday night. I hear two of them and one of the Cousin Jacks were nearly killed outright. We shouldn’t have allowed that at Yatala. But here we have a surplus population. Perhaps they’ll reduce it in their own way.’
‘Things are not going on as well as Blake thinks,’ said the Major, as we strolled homeward. ‘He has had great luck in holding down difficult populations, I grant. But his bridge may break with him some day, and it is as likely to be here as anywhere.’
‘That other inspector of police that came over to stay a week or so last month, said he believed all the “cross boys” of all the colonies were congregated here: that there was bound to be a row—by which he meant a revolt, I suppose—and that nothing, in his opinion, could prevent it.’
‘They can’t hurt us if we’re not slain outright, like Sir Albany Fetherstonhaugh in the old border ballad by hard-riding Dick Clym o’ the Cleugh, and the rest. Our gold is pretty regularly transmitted by escort. They won’t rob that, I suppose.’
‘Why not?’ I said. ‘You don’t suppose they have any particular delicacy about stopping that or any other drag with treasure aboard! Fellows like those we saw to-day would be an ugly lot to meet in one of those narrow rocky gaps, as they call them, over the line of ranges.’
‘Not pluck enough,’ said the Major. ‘Horse-stealing and cattle-lifting are their favourite pastime, but standing before a police rifle, or a brace of revolvers held moderately straight, is not in the line of the native-born Australian brigand.’
‘I hope you are a true prophet; but I hold a different opinion. These fellows, all unused to warfare as of course they are, are never averse to stand a shot or two for value received. But, like all Australians, when tempted to work or fight, they believe that the risk should not be disproportioned to the gain.’
‘All the vices must be here by this time,’ mused the Major. ‘Even a modest assortment of the virtues is about to join us—from Warraluen, they say, even. The reefers, though on good gold there they say, are so worked on by the marvellous tales of the South Lead here, that they are nearly all leaving in a body, headed by your friend Black Ned. Have you seen Malgrade yet?’
‘No, I heard of him though. He hasn’t been here long. He camps down at that flat where those fellows we saw near the camp were making for. He and Poynter are working together, they say, and that big fellow with the whiskers, Harry Jefferson. He keeps the Pick and Pan public-house, and it’s a rendezvous for all the horse thieves, homicides, and mixed ruffians on this side of the country. Blake told Merlin he ought to make a raid there some day; that it was a regular Alsatia.’
‘There’s something in the air I’m convinced. We shall hear news before long. There’s a lot of these foreign fellows about that were at the Ballarat stockade. Joe Bulder says, too, there’s a good deal of grumbling about the Chinamen.’
‘It seems they have been mopping up some rich surfacing, and rather anticipated the European miners, who didn’t like it.’
‘Didn’t they, indeed!’ said the Major sardonically. ‘Well I must say that for a nice, peaceful appointment, involving no special anxiety, or vexed questions of law or equity, commend me to the post of Commissioner on a large newly broken out goldfield.’
‘I agree with you most thoroughly,’ I replied. ‘Taking the character of the population, the ceaseless complaints and disputes, the accidents and offences, the utter impossibility of foreseeing in what consequences the smallest ground of dissatisfaction if left unsettled may result, the complicated criminal and social ramifications underlying the whole fabric, on my honour, if I had a favourite enemy and could ensure his doing his work conscientiously, I would beseech
‘The Fiend, to whom belongs
The vengeance due to all our wrongs,’
to present him with the appointment.’
It seems unnecessary to state that nearly all our Yatala friends and acquaintances, as well as numberless strangers, were now located here.
Some of the streets were so full of well known names and faces that it appeared as if a portion of our old gold town had been lifted up bodily by a genie, as in the Arabian Nights, and dropped softly down upon the banks of the Oxley.
In all the earlier gold settlements, only those who had very good interests to represent stayed behind. As for Cyrus, he used to send disconsolate and wonderfully spelled letters, bewailing his lot at having to remain at a place where he could neither work nor play, where he had nothing to do but watch a shaft, and where there was now no more chance of a horse race than there was of a circus in a tea-tree scrub. He had a good mind, he said, to chuck up the whole thing and make tracks for the Oxley.
Not only friends but foes had naturally been borne in on the resistless wave of the exodus. Malgrade and Isaac Poynter, having joined unto them divers other evil spirits worse than themselves, were pursuing their old courses, from the circumstances of the place, with more unchecked license than of old. They had located themselves at a rich and strictly disorderly section of the goldfield, which had early gained an unenviable notoriety. More than one violent death had occurred there. Missing men, known to have left for town with gold, had never again been seen alive. A wild humourist had complimented it with the suggestive title of ‘Murderers’ Flat.’ And, somehow, it had not lost the ominous name. Here were congregated, confessedly, the more lawless spirits of the place. Hither came outlaws from other colonies, over whose heads were warrants of apprehension certain to be executed if once their identity were established. This was the cover drawn by the police when any criminal of distinction was wanted; and on such occasions Mr. Merlin and his troopers invariably looked carefully to their arms, and neglected no precaution which might be necessary against surprise or resistance.
‘From information received,’ the sergeant was enabled to inform his superior officer that here the four mounted men who had passed the camp in the evening had remained during all the preceding day and night; that they had stabled their horses at the hostelry of Mr. Henry Jefferson, the Pick and Pan, where Malgrade had been seen in their company, besides other marked men; that in his, the informant’s opinion, ‘something good had been put up,’ the nature of which benevolent enterprise he had not as yet been enabled to discover.
‘So far, so bad,’ Mr. Merlin condescended to remark. ‘It would have been something to the purpose if you had got the least inkling of what they were going to have a shy at. I could have told him that Lardner, Wall, and Gilbert Hawke had something on hand. What it is we’re all in the dark about. What if we arrest the lot on suspicion of horse-stealing. I’ll swear they never came honestly by their mounts.’
‘Better wait,’ counselled the sergeant. ‘They’re bound to be at some new game before long.’
‘How do you know you’ll have them then?’ demanded Mr. Merlin fiercely. ‘What with the confounded Donegal riots, and these infernal Chinamen, coming over here like locusts; and the cursed dance-houses; and just half the police here we ought to have—the superintendent keeps one so devilish short of men—the field is going to the devil; and I expect everything and everybody will come to grief.’
Really, there did seem to be some ground for Mr. Merlin’s slightly bilious deliverance. His order-loving soul was daily vexed by reason of the irregularities which he was obliged to condone, knowing full well, too, that apparent trifles were prone to swell to dangerous dimensions.
Yet he relaxed not one jot or tittle of daily or nightly diligence; every one under his command was kept at the utmost tension of discipline possible to mortal man.
We, in a general way, thought that the greater concourse of adventurers massed together from so many different sources might, under unfavourable conditions, drift towards disaffection and revolt. But gold, the universal lubricator, was available in any quantity in those flush times, and to its efficacy we and all the moderates were fain to trust.
Truth to tell, we did not trouble ourselves deeply concerning the social life of the goldfields, or those difficulties which might beset a conscientious police officer in the discharge of his duties. We were sufficiently heedless of the morrow to disregard the future of the portion of Australia in which we found ourselves. We felt a benign trust in those who might come after. As long as we were not robbed or murdered—contingencies against which we felt tolerably certain of defence—we left all other considerations to fate and the lesser providences.
Then our daily labour was engrossing, its compensation profuse and exciting. If we could only manage to hold on, filling our pails at the golden spring which welled up so plentifully, all Australia might revert to a state of pliocene plasticity for anything we cared.