Thus, in despite of all moral obligations, and with but little apparent regard for the doctrine of compensation, the claims immediately around Murderers’ Flat, unenviable locale as it might seem, yielded marvellously. Excepting the original ‘Jewellers’ Point,’ there was no richer spot on the whole field. The prize-fighters and ‘forcats,’ burglars and bushrangers, who were said to be in a majority thereabouts, secured lawful gains of such value in a few weeks as should have converted them to virtuous ways their whole lives after.
So it might well have been. But the chief result of the wondrous gold spring, here so easily tapped, was a saturnalia comprehending a succession of terrible orgies, such as even in the darkest prison days the land had never known.
Here, fallen to the level of the dregs of humanity, could Algernon Malgrade reside, careless of all things but of the huge gains which he was apparently heaping up; while associating and carousing in his hours of abandonment with the vilest offscourings of society. Here was Dolores to be seen flaunting in extravagant silks and loaded with jewellery. And here, urged on by the same fatal thirst for gold, did Edward Morsley propose to settle afresh, bringing with him his wretched, despairing wife.
Of this fresh shuffling of the cards in the game of gold, amid the stakes of which my own life seemed so strangely commingled, I was first informed by common rumour; more accurately soon after by a letter from poor Jane herself. The miserable, tear-stained missive ran—
‘How can I find words to tell you that my husband has determined to leave here for the Oxley, and, worse than all a thousand times, to keep an inn at that horrible place, Murderers’ Flat, of which I have heard such dreadful tales. He says we can make a fortune in a year. But I know the sort of life I shall lead there, the insults I shall be exposed to, the daily degradation in which I shall be compelled to share. I feel more than ever inclined to put an end to myself before this last horror comes upon me. I have borne enough, too much, and I solemnly swear that I will not consent to live there, whatever he may order me to do. If you wish me to keep this wretched life unended by my own hands, help me to get a passage home to England, dear, blessed old England—the very name makes me weep, how bitterly God only knows! You said you would do what you could for me—do this, the last and greatest kindness you can ever do for me, Hereward Pole, if you think the life worth saving of your most miserable, despairing friend,
This was an appeal to which I could not remain deaf, unless I had had power to change my whole mental constitution. Whatever might be the consequences—and I foresaw some that were unpleasant, not to say dangerous and damaging, situated as I was—I was in honour bound to perform the service required of me. Had I not done so, I should have for ever regarded myself as basely selfish, cold-hearted, unworthy. Prudence strongly strove with me in my cooler moments. But had I listened to her dictates, I should ever have known inwardly that I had consulted my safety, so to speak, at the expense of every feeling of manhood, every thought of honour. I could not do it. I wrote at once to the forlorn creature to say that I would do what she wished: in the meanwhile I counselled prudence, and promised that I would at once take steps to carry out a plan for her escape, which I sketched out.
It involved, of course, no trifling sacrifice on my part, but I threw all such considerations to the winds. The die was cast. There was nothing more to be said. I immediately set about my preparations for going down to Sydney. Of course I explained matters to the Major, a preliminary stage which I rather dreaded. He heard me with an ominous silence. Then he thus delivered himself—
‘I don’t say you haven’t acted generously, my dear fellow: it was very kind of you, and so on, but women are such confounded fools and so difficult to deal with, particularly when they belong to other people, that I shouldn’t like to bet that you won’t live to repent your good nature.’
‘I shall never do that,’ I said, ‘whatever happens.’
The next thing necessary was to arrange for my journey by coach to Sydney, and, in this respect, fortune appeared to favour me. Mr. Bright, the Bank of New Holland manager, happened to be going down at the same time. He had applied to the Commissioner to go down with the escort, a privilege which was on this occasion graciously extended to me.
‘I know you’re a good game shot, Pole,’ he said. ‘I saw you shoot at Windaroo pigeon match when you beat Heathfield. Bring that navy revolver with you, and we shall be a match for all the bushrangers in the country. I always carry a brace of “shooting sticks.”
‘That’s all very well, but they might take a sitting shot at us, as O’Grady’s father did at the sub-sheriff. I’m not so clear that the escort’s the best coach after all. There’s a deuce of a cargo this time, I hear, and we might drop in for “The Brigands of the Black Forest” business.’
‘All the better sport,’ said the sporting financier. ‘They won’t catch me napping, I’ll be bound. And a bushranger’s a better mark than a blue rock, you must admit, Pole.’
‘And a better shot, too, Captain,’ said I. ‘I wouldn’t mind a ruffle with some of your volunteers, but these fellows mean business when they go on the war path. However, our passage is taken.’
The first escort that left the Oxley after our claim had washed up was an unusually rich one. Some of the others had taken advantage of the late rains to do likewise. The result was such an aggregation of the ‘root of all evil’ as sufficed to set most of the unoccupied tongues on the ground wagging. In any other country, perhaps, the transit of twenty-seven thousand ounces of gold, worth more than a hundred thousand pounds sterling, would have excited even more comment. But we had been so much used to seeing bags and parcels, lumps and handfuls of the precious metal handed about in dishes, tin pannikins, and other homely utensils, that we scarcely thought more of it as freight than of so much grain or potatoes.
In the hearts of others, however, there yet lingered, doubtless, covetous feelings and artful schemes more or less feasible as to the illegal appropriation of what we held so lightly, one parcel of which would in foreign lands yield perhaps a life-long term of ease and self-indulgence.
Among the enfans perdus of the great mining army were always a score or two of well-known men, always ready to volunteer for a criminal forlorn hope, supposing the prize to be sufficiently tempting.
The occasion of the escort leaving the police camp was one which always involved critical observation and local excitement. In every community there appears to be a distinct class, much of whose time is devoted to the examination of contemporary means of locomotion. They congregate to watch the steamer arrive, the train depart, the coach come in, even the omnibus roll heavily away with unfailing punctuality. At the Oxley, the coach arriving bespattered or bedusted after the performance of a long fast journey over bad roads, was a daily miracle at which, in despite of a sceptical age, the corps of observation never ceased to marvel. But the gold escort, combining as it did the prestige of a ‘stage’ with the mystery of a treasure-house, never failed to secure a yet larger and more representative body of spectators.
But that I had reasons of weight for visiting the metropolis at this particular juncture, I should not have quitted my post. I did not like leaving the barque before the anchor was down. I was wise enough to know that any break in a labourer’s life makes return to steady work doubly difficult. But I was determined to arrange if possible for the passage to Europe of my old friend and playmate. I wished to save her from the dark fate, the final degradation, in which I had seen others as fair and erst innocent-seeming, engulfed before now. It appeared to me in the light of a sacred duty to my old home life, my old associates. And I was determined to carry it through at all hazards.
On this occasion Mr. Bright and I had from Captain Blake what was esteemed a rare and highly valued privilege on such occasions, namely, permission to ‘travel by the escort,’ as the phrase was, that is, upon the actual conveyance which carried the treasure boxes. Naturally such a permit was not granted indiscriminately; but from time to time a banker, a government official, or, as in my case, any resident of the place in whom the Executive had full confidence, was allowed to take his seat on the golden chariot. This equipage was represented by a strong, heavily-built American coaching waggon, which, with relays of four-horse teams, carried rapidly, and in general safely, the spoils of the alluvial drifts and quartz ledges.
‘By Jove! you are a lucky fellow, Pole,’ said the Commissioner, ‘to be able to travel by Her Majesty’s private conveyance with a thousand ounces of your own gold on board for pocket money when you get to town. I sometimes think I’ll drop the service and take to digging in good earnest. What do you say? I’m afraid it’s too late to buy into No. 4, or anything on the Sinbad’s Valley line. But just keep your eyes about you, Bright, when you are passing those confounded Eugowra Rocks. We’ve had a whisper that Lardner has been seen near Yedden Mountain, d—n him! You’re armed, of course?’
I touched my left hip significantly.
‘Of course. Too long in the country to travel unloaded. Bright has his battery, I know. Well, bon voyage. Remember me to the Chief if you see him. Tell him I’m worked to death.’
A stranger must have augured favourably of the early habits of the Oxley population who had witnessed the crowd assembled at five A.M. at the gate of the camp, at least half an hour before the departure of the escort. Certainly, the pure, fresh air of an Australian summer morn, dominating the stale and sickly odours of the tawdry bars and empty, dusty streets, might have seemed to some a sufficient reason. As the sun rose clear and ruby bright through the pale eastern pearl fringe, lighting up the sullen gorge of Eugowra, the frowning, sombre mountain range, my heart rose as if in unison with the gracious aspect of Nature, and each purer, more elevated feeling seemed strengthened and exalted. How mysteriously invisible is the form of coming evil at certain seasons; how darkly soul-shrouding its very shadow at others.
On this day, however, success and hope encompassed me, bearing down all doubt and opposition. The Major and Joe came to see us off, and as I passed through the crowd I was sensible of respectful and admiring criticism.
‘That’s Harry Pole, of No. 4 Liberator, and the best claim on Greenstone atop of it,’ said an old Yatala shepherd, charmed to have the opportunity of explanation. ‘Richest claim on the lead, but disputed. Got £20,000 in the bank, and two thousand ounces in that bloomin’ escort. Very awkward, ain’t it?’
‘What’s he want to go to town for?’ queried a cynical listener. ‘What ’ud you or I, mate, want to go to town for, supposin’ we washed up once a fortnight to that tune? Wants to have his ’air cut Paris-fashion, or to see the theayter, or leave his card on the Governor-General, may be.’
‘Don’t they never rob the escort?’
‘Well, not much they don’t, though I wouldn’t say, mind ye, as it mightn’t be done by men as ’ud stand a shot for a big touch. They’d have to work it to rights though. Here they come.’
At this moment the camp gates were opened, and the well-groomed, high conditioned team, fed with corn that cost a guinea a bushel, and with hay that was much dearer than loaf sugar (it was a dry year and the crops were bad and grass there was none), plunged at their collars, and the heavy but well-hung drag rolled out. The treasure boxes, to the number of half a hundred or more, were lifted out from Sergeant MacMahon’s room, and counted over carefully to the sergeant in charge of the escort. They were small, compact, and iron-bound, but judging by the way in which they were lifted, remarkably heavy for their size.
On the box sat a senior-sergeant of police, a tall, slight, soldierly-looking man, with a black beard which fell to his breast, and who handled the reins like one to whom such things were familiar. A trooper fully armed, with a Snider rifle between his knees in addition to the navy revolver at his belt, sat beside him. In the body of the drag, where I and Mr. Bright were accommodated with seats, were two more constables similarly armed. A couple of mounted men rode in advance, and as many a short distance behind. The distance was pretty accurately preserved, under all circumstances. These troopers carried short breech-loading carbines. Well mounted and admirably turned out, as to uniform and equipment—for Mr. Merlin’s eye spared no slovenliness of dress on drill—they might have passed muster in any cavalry troop in Europe.
That distinguished official was, there, of course, coldly observant, and with such an air of guarded approval as caused every person connected with the equipage and service, from the gold-receiver, Sergeant MacMahon, to the last pair of mounted troopers, to consider within themselves whether some detail of dress, duty, or deportment had not been left unperformed.
‘Bon voyage, Bright; good-bye, Pole; good-bye, Harry,’ were the last farewells that met my ear from the Major and the crowd. ‘Good luck and a jolly trip to you!’ And we were away.
The weather was superb, my companion cheerful and amusing; the roads, though occasionally precipitous, by no means painfully uneven. The occasion was apparently fortunate. For a while I fully realised the pleasantness of change and leisure, the cessation of the daily revolution of the gold mill, a machine which becomes as wearisome in time as all other monotonously coercive occupations.
Unconsciously I commenced to dwell upon the still remaining obstacles to the homeward voyage, the contemplation of which, as too feverishly exciting, I always resisted. While at work, it had a tendency to unnerve and unfit for this dull unimaginative frame of dogged endurance which is labour’s truest ally. Now I could for a short time revel in the roseate tints and golden haze wherewith the great scene-painter, Fancy, embellishes the dingy properties of life’s dull stage.
A few more months’ work, a few more washings up at the present most satisfactory rate of yield, No. 4 free from legal hindrances, fairly gone at, and, with the wages men we could afford to put on, worked out, the vein of auriferous drift would be quickly exhausted. Every square yard of it would be brought to the light of day, puddled, sifted, turned from gravel to minted gold by the rude skill of the miner—that latter-day alchemist.
Then, at last—would Fate permit such bliss?—I should be in possession of a sum of at least fifty thousand pounds, perhaps even more. I should be firmly, indefensibly possessed of that title to respect, which every man holds who can point to a competence hewn by his own labour from the sterile, hard, at times adamantine quarry of labour. I should have done this almost literally. I should have disproved every word of disparagement that my enemies could have ever used against me; have confirmed the faith of true friends; have justified the sublime devotedness of my early love, my peerless Ruth; have earned the right to a future of dignified ease, if not of unalloyed enjoyment.
In the sophisticated methods of approval which hold good, in this our day, it may well be questioned whether a man does not receive a larger meed of honour and respect who has been simply the recipient of an ancestral hoard. Such lands, such wealth, such rank, represent, rateably, the labour and the prudence, the valour and the wisdom, it may well be but the servility or the greed, of the dead men who have gone before. Their descendant, by no merit of his own, becomes the fortunate possessor not only of the lands and the money bags; even by a curious fiction is credited with the possession of a large share of the valour and the intellect which he has but little chance of displaying, and of which it may be he is wholly devoid. He may never have done deed or uttered speech which the humblest labourer on his estate could not have matched. Yet, in this Pantheon of false gods and outworn idols, men and women make obeisance yet more lowly to the puppet of fortune than to the proved possessor of those qualities by which families are founded and races are ennobled.
Be this as it might I had become sufficiently democratic under my goldfields’ training to believe that as Hereward Pole, the returned Australian miner, I should be able to hold up my head in my own country to some purpose with the proceeds of No. 4 and the Greenstone Dyke transmuted into a bank balance. Even as an unknown adventurer of fairly decent appearance and manners, with my trusty cheque-book by my side, that modern Excalibur, I could hew my way to the notice of the Queen of the Tournament. But though few knew, and fewer cared about such a matter of musty genealogy here, I was none the less Hereward Pole, a cadet of the ancient house of Shute, in honour and antiquity second to none of the companions of the Norman conqueror.
How the days would fly, after I had realised and gone to town on my final journey to take my passage by the first mail steamer! What calm delight to rest from work, even from thought, long dreamy days, gliding on the breezeless, languorous Red Sea, or, in glowing sunset hours, to watch the unresting surge at play on the long mysterious coast-line of Africa, ancientest land of wonder and of dread. Past all mortal visions of happiness would be that day of days, should it ever arrive, ah me! when the white cliffs, the emerald-green fields of long-lost, long-loved Albion would greet these desert-worn eyes!
Then would, indeed, heaven open for me—here below. Then would that whitest, purely radiant angel, gazing at me with the well-remembered, tender-glowing orbs of love—
‘Curse that infernal tree—right across the narrowest bit of the gap? Wonder whether it blew down, or whether those Yedden Mountain ruffians put it there on purpose; blank, blank,’ objurgated the sergeant. ‘Jump out you two and take the axe; we might shift it.’
Here was an interruption with a vengeance. Brought down from realms celestial to this saddest sordid sphere, where fierce or grovelling passions alternately debase hopeless humanity.