The Miner’s Right

Chapter XX

Rolf Boldrewood

NUMBERLESS verbal invitations of this nature had been heard before at Yatala. At the Warraluen and other gold towns, time after time the ominous words ‘roll up’ had sounded forth, generally followed up by the gathering of a mighty crowd to listen eagerly to stormy, excited oratory. Then the throng would gradually disperse. A committee would be formed, with instructions to embody the wrongs of the mining community in a petition to the Minister for Lands, who at that period, before the inauguration of a special department with a Minister for Mines, swayed their destinies. Sometimes the wrongs complained of were imaginary, much fomented by demagogues and public-house politicians for their own ends. Sometimes they had real foundation in fact. In all cases they received recognition, oftentimes a measure of redress. This last was occasionally tardy.

The Commissioner and Mr. Merlin were wont to regard these mass meetings, with their fiery denunciations, as convenient safety valves. The sergeant, who knew more of the subterranean igneous agencies, assented in a general way to this doctrine, but thought ‘the field’ required ceaseless watch and ward in case of accidents. Wide as had been the experience of his superior officers, they had reached the stage of careless confidence, akin to that of the sea-captain who has weathered tempests and grazed a thousand shoals. High-handed and daring to apparent recklessness, how many a threatened gold-field’s émeute, when battalions of stalwart, strong-willed men had blocked the narrow streets, making the very earth to shake with their tread, had they seen evaporate harmlessly? It would be so again.

On this morning, however, though all the officials appeared careless and unheeding as usual, they could not conceal from themselves that matters were different. There was something in the air that boded evil. All needful precautions were taken. The small force of police, mounted and on foot, were placed under arms and ready for immediate service. Even a detachment of troopers, passing through to another district, was impressed and added to the contingent; thus making up an effective army of about thirty men, to assail or defend themselves from thirty thousand! As rank after rank of miners gathered at the open space in the centre of the town near the camp, as every flat and gully within miles—for scouts had been sent forth from early dawn—furnished forth its quota of volunteers, the crowd became larger, denser, enormous. It was soon openly stated that every claim on the field was idle on that day. Yet there was hardly as much excitement as usual; no loud talking, no eager gestures. A grave settled resolve—the most dangerous feature of a revolutionary crowd—appeared to have taken possession of the vast assemblage. The open space near the camp—the ‘plaza’ as the Spanish-American diggers called it—was one sea of human heads. The cross-streets were crowded far down on either side. A rude scaffolding had been erected some time since for the purpose of a hustings on the election of a member for the electorate. Upon this a man suddenly sprang and raised his hand, and as he did so a hoarse cry of greeting, a roar as of a herd of mammoths, rose from the vast far-spreading crowd. It was one of those sounds which, heard for the first time, instinctively thrill the heart and cause every nerve to vibrate. It tells of that vast unmanageable force, the physical power of the people, cast loose from all ancient moorings, and drifting into a sea of chaos. It tells of the unchained lions that are hungry for a prey. It pronounces, in trumpet-tones, the knell of legitimate authority. And it thunders the accusation against those whose task it is to guide mankind, that they have been slothful or incapable in the supreme hour of trial.

The man who was thus greeted was dressed in the ordinary garments of a working miner. His flannel shirt was open above his bare breast. His clay-stained boots and trousers showed that he had been summoned from daily labour. Yet one could see that he was a man of mark—one of those strange heralds of doom, arising suddenly, like storm-birds which sweep around the lowering horizon over the moaning sea when the tempest’s hour is nigh.

As he raised his hand and stepped forward with a free unstudied gesture, and commenced in a resonant vibratory voice, that pierced even to the outer billows of the heaving human sea, Mr. Merlin observed to the Commissioner—

‘It’s that infernal scoundrel, Radetsky. I thought he was dead. Where has he been hiding all this time?’

‘Faith, that’s your business,’ said the Captain. ‘He’s worth more than a thousand men where he is this day. After all, he’s not a bad fellow that I know of—except that he’s a rioter, a democrat enragé;, and a Pole.’

‘He’s an infernal firebrand,’ growled Merlin, ‘and a deserter, I believe. I wish to heavens the Russians had shot him when they caught him, instead of letting him loose to plague us here. The sergeant knows him well.’

‘It’s me that does,’ said that honest officer; ‘didn’t I know him at Turonia and Rocky Flat, and wasn’t he nearly rising a ruction at both places, let alone Ballarat, where they say he was in the stockade. He’s a dangerous man, none more so; but he never gave us a chance to run him in.’

‘He has got his innings now,’ said the Commissioner. ‘And what he’ll score before he’s clean bowled no man can tell.’

The hour had come, and the man. So much was evident. As the burning words of the exile rolled forth in sonorous, telling periods, in spite of his foreign air and accent, the heart of every man in the vast congregation went out to him. He told them how their interests had been systematically sacrificed by those who should have conserved them. How they had been taxed directly and indirectly for the purpose of subsidising a costly system of management, which was as inefficient as expensive. How that their time and their industry had been swallowed up in litigation. How arbitrary rulers had coerced them, threatened them, degraded the very name of free miners, aye, of free manhood. How the whole system of tyranny and misgovernment had culminated in this one last intolerable grievance—this pandering to a monstrous wrong. This handing over the richest portions of the waste country they had civilised, the gold they had discovered, to a pagan horde, ignorant alike of the laws of God and man—human locusts sent hither by the Devil to eat up the reward of their skilled labour, of their arduous toil, of their weary exile. He spoke now to the hearts of men who, like himself, had left behind them for evermore, home and friends and Fatherland. (Here such a cheer rose from the foreigners and many of the British miners as seemed to rend the very air and echo among the forest glades for long moments afterwards.) They might suffer this if they pleased. They might humbly stand and look on while their comrades were plundered and their birthright given to dogs. For him, he was resolved. It was not the first time he had shed his blood for freedom. He might rot in gaol. He might die by the sword or the bullets of hirelings. But, if he tamely suffered these wrongs, he was no longer a son of slaughtered, betrayed, buried Poland, and no longer was his name Stanislas Radetsky.

He stood for one moment as he concluded his impassioned appeal, in which the words had poured forth in one unbroken torrent of sound, emphasised with action that seemed the very language of his physical being, an electrical co-ordinate of his nature. Then he waved his hand with a gesture of defiance as if to an unseen foe, and leaping lightly down from the rude rostrum was lost in the crowd.

Then arose, first a hoarse, deep murmur, as when the ocean slowly thunders against the rock-battlements ere the stormwind arises in its might, bearing on its breath, in rudely rhythmical monotone, the doom of lonely barques, of strong-sailed navies and their crews. Then came a storm of cheers, commenced near the place where the speaker had subsided, and taken up from time to time till the furthermost edge of the vast concourse of people was reached. From time to time the menacing sound-waves ceased—only to be taken up and renewed at the slightest outburst.

‘What do you think of that, Merlin?’ said the Commissioner.

‘By ——! they mean mischief at last,’ replied that official. ‘I was always doubtful that those infernal Chinamen would lead to a row some day. I wish I’d telegraphed for a double supply of men.’

‘Not the least use, my dear fellow,’ said the Commissioner. ‘If these fellows are as far gone as you say, a company of regulars would make no earthly difference.’

‘That’s impossible to say—and, surely, I need not explain to Captain Blake,’ replied Merlin, with his most superfine bow, ‘what a very small proportion of disciplined troops is sufficient to awe a crowd, however numerous.’

‘There are crowds and crowds, my dear fellow,’ answered the Commissioner, patting one of his greyhounds, who looked wistfully at the great array, divining with the instinct of his race that things were not as usual. ‘Ban here knows that there’s no kangarooing for him to-day, and he does not offer to run in any of the people as he generally does on Saturdays. Who is getting up now? No foreigner this time, eh?’

‘It’s Mark Thursby. I wonder at his making a fool of himself; but they’re all going mad together, it seems to me.’

‘By Jove! so it is. My favourite digger, if I have a preference for one of them. Serves me right; but it looks bad when old Mark Thursby begins to “revolute.”’

A very different figure from the eager, impassioned Pole now slowly arose and raised himself to his full height. A broad, vast-chested, long-armed figure, roughly clad, with heavy hobnailed boots neatly laced up to the ankle. One of those children of labour whom the kindly soil and temperate clime of Britain have reared to till the fields, to work her thousand-fathom-deep mines, to build her endless iron roads, to be a marvel and a boast for strength and manliness the wide world through.

An Englishman he, and born north of the Humber; so much was evident from his speech the moment he opened his mouth. That he was a representative man and popular with his fellows was also demonstrated by the cheers and favourable cries which greeted his appearance.

Standing erect and looking calmly at the vast surging mass, he spoke without a hint, gesture, or outward sign. His deep voice was but little raised, still it could be heard by those at a considerable distance away, so complete and wonderful was the hush. This was a proved doer, not a talker; a man of immense personal weight and influence. And his every shred of utterance was valued according to its rarity. An untiring worker, yet a man of great organising power in mining undertakings. Utterly honest, fearless, true, and steadfast, there was not a boy on the whole of the Oxley diggings, out to the most distant unimportant gully, where a few ounces of gold were gathered weekly, who did not know, had not heard of Mark Thursby of Eaglehawk.

‘I’m for the law mostly, you all know,’ he said. ‘Noan ivir seed me along o’ the Coort, or in t’ logs, and I’ve been diggina’ since ’49 at Suttor’s Mill. But things has gotten too bad, though aw’ve nowt to say agin the Commissioner nor Mr. Merlin nor agin the sargint, as is a reet doon sensible chap as ever put the darbics on a Christian mon. But summat’s gan clean wrong, and that bad as needs ravellin’ oot, where yaller Chayneymen is gotten that bold as they’ll tak t’ brass and the land both, and drive out diggers as has paid for their Rights, and Englishmen as do’ant reckon to knock under to any folk on God’s earth whatever colour or talk they’ve gotten. And if you’re all good for gannin reet oot to Green Gully and takkin’ it back from ’em, Mark Thursby’s for makkin’ one.’

The hoarse roar which greeted this proposition, unadorned as was the bare statement of fact with any flowers of rhetoric, was sufficient to denote that the deeper passions of the multitude were stirred. Those who listened were fully aware that something unusual was imminent. Of the nature and full extent they could hardly judge. Another and yet another speaker sprang forward and addressed the crowd, both representative miners, and men who had shared the experiences, the toils, and the burdens of those whom they addressed. Still no further manifestations of feeling took place. The great mass gradually became disintegrated, and the miners in small knots and companies departed. But it was known in the camp that the word had been passed round for a full muster at daybreak. What the result of that gathering might be all might surmise, but none could with certainty divine.

A sort of council of war was held, at which the sergeant, with Mr. Merlin and the Commissioner, assisted.

The sergeant looked so grave that the Commissioner, who had a strong dash of reckless hardihood about him, commenced to laugh.

‘It’s no laughing matter, Blake,’ said Mr. Merlin. ‘In my opinion the barricades are morally up, and to-morrow’s sun will rise on the largest goldfield in Australia in revolt.’

‘Against which we have a force?’ queried the Commissioner.

‘Of thirty strong, including all branches of the service,’ said Merlin, with a mock solemnity; ‘cavalry, infantry, with a reserve of two lock-up keepers.’

‘Well, we must conquer or die, it seems,’ said Captain Blake carelessly. ‘I shan’t retreat if there were forty thousand instead of thirty. I don’t suppose they will thirst for our blood, however indignant they may be with regulations that don’t exclude Chinamen. We must temporise as well as we can until the Government sends reinforcements, which they are quite certain to do within a week.’

.     .     .     .     .

While this movement was going on, it may be imagined that our party felt personally interested after no trifling fashion. We had everything to lose and nothing to gain by conflict with the civil power. Any overturning of the present state of society might be ruinous to us socially and financially. If we got mixed up with the rioters, we might be joined in their future defeat and punishment. If a general scramble took place, we might lose our claim. We had no fancy for being ruled over by the truculent scoundrels, of whom there were numbers among the mining body, only kept down by pressure of law and the orderly feeling of the masses. Our opinions were shared by large numbers of the better educated miners. Nevertheless, so strong was the esprit de corps which had grown up through years of mining comradeship, so fixed and clear was the conviction that in the matter of the Chinese our order had suffered wrong, that we felt bound in honour, and indeed irresistibly impelled to identify ourselves with the movement, disastrous though it might be to all our best interests. At the same time, we were not without hope that we might exercise a beneficial influence upon the crowd, thus possibly preventing bloodshed or overt acts of rebellion.

When, therefore, we were visited by the committee formed for the purpose of organising resistance to this present legalised Chinese occupation we gave in our adhesion, only expressing our hope that order would be maintained, and that nothing more would be done than was necessary to assert constitutional rights.

‘You bet we’re not going to let the rowdies have it their own way any more than the Chows,’ said Sonora Joe, who was one of the selected chiefs of our auriferous republic. ‘If any of them begin to show out and out ugly, we’ll teach ’em what the Associated Miners’ Executive Committee can do. There’s some of ’em that remember San Francisco, and the old Vigilante days too well to make much of a muss. And, Major, I’m deputed to ask you, sir, in the name of the miners of the Oxley, now engaged in this little pronunciamiento, if you’ll act as chief magistrate and commissioner in any cases that may be brought before you. We’re bound to administer justice while we’re working out the Magna Charta business; and I reckon Captain Blake won’t feel free to act till things is fixed up square and monarchical again.’

‘I don’t expect he will,’ said the Major, smiling rather grimly. ‘And for two pins I wouldn’t either. But just to keep things straight, I’ll take office with you Roundheads temporarily. But remember, if it comes to resisting the Queen’s troops, I’m against you to the last drop of my blood.’

‘We don’t expect nothin’ else, Major,’ said the Republican. ‘We don’t expect any Queen’s officer to desert his colours—we must all fend for ourselves then. Mayhap it won’t come to that. But they must give us up the ground as we’ve toiled and moiled and wasted our lives for, or there’ll be more than one as ’ll stand a shot for it. Daylight’s the word and Green Gully.’

This important colloquy took place about midnight after the monster meeting in the town. All the early part of the night preparations were made, sub-committees were formed, each having power to act in certain contingencies. The miners have the faculty of organisation to a considerable extent, and for the necessity of self-government which has arisen under many circumstances of their migrating lives, are by no means so much at sea as large bodies of men suddenly cut loose from the social fabric would be apt to be. Soon after midnight, therefore, all arrangements had been made, and the goldfield was in repose, which gave an utterly false impression of the state of tranquillity and the subsistence of lawless intent.

But long before the stars had left the sky the whole encampment was astir; and as the sun rose the measured tread of ten thousand men marching towards the police camp commenced to shake the earth, and to warn the occupants with that strange indescribable hum which a large approaching force, however silently disposed, always produces, that the miners of the Oxley were at length under arms.

The Miner’s Right - Contents    |     Chapter XXI

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