The Miner’s Right

Chapter XXII

Rolf Boldrewood

FOR OURSELVES, we took no part in the attack and ill-treatment of the aliens. Of course we held such to be unlawful and indefensible, though from a miner’s point of view we could easily understand an excited mob of mixed nationalities acting in that way. We had abstained from all complicity in the violence done, and took no share in the reward. We doubted not but that some kind of expiation was likely to be exacted for these high-handed proceedings, and were resolved to keep as clear of all blame as our comrades would permit us to do.

We, therefore, took the earliest opportunity of going back to the Oxley, though we had some difficulty in persuading Cyrus Yorke not to ‘wire in,’ as he expressed it, for ‘a bit of shaller, with the gold sticking out a beggin’, for half an hour, with a Chinaman’s pick and shovel, cradle and everything complete.’ We dwelt upon the anxiety such a proceeding would cause his wife, and finally carried him safely back with us.

On our arrival at the camp we discovered, to our great gratification, that the whole body of officials, with the police, had executed a flank movement and retired in good order, having evacuated their fortress and fallen back upon reinforcements. The force which had been left to keep them in check had found the task irksome, and gradually melted away. A scout had come in from Green Gully and given such glowing accounts of the extraordinary richness and shallowness of the ground, the best thing seen by living men since Eaglehawk in Victoria—that it was not in the nature of miners to stay away from such a rush. All the more energetic took their departure incontinently, leaving behind a gradually decreasing band of earnest political enthusiasts, with a sprinkling of loafers and camp-followers.

When these, towards nightfall, saw the Commissioner, followed by Mr. Merlin and his men, come forth in battle array, and take the road to Warraluen, they did not see their way clear to withstand them, and evidently thought, like that Provost of Edinburgh who considered the good town ‘weel rid of that de’il of Dundee,’ that it was well to connive at the retreat of such unpleasant, possibly dangerous adversaries.

On the following morning, therefore, when a contingent from the main body of the rioters, having had leisure to return temporarily from their claims and devote a little time to public affairs, discovered that the camp was empty, they took formal possession of the silent cells and echoing court-house and offices in the name of the Committee of Public Safety and the Associated Miners of Australia.

It is now certain that the bolder spirits among them entertained a hope that this revolt would spread through the whole mining population of New South Wales, at that time numerically large and powerful, and that the working classes en masse would next follow suit. To this end, and to fit themselves for future republican responsibilities, they commenced to make laws for their own guidance, and to administer the present code in a temper which showed that they would not permit anarchy, violence, or petty crime among their own body.

Thus a few low-lived ruffians, who had presumed on the social dislocation to pilfer and threaten outrage, were at once arrested and lodged in the cells, being locked up with as much promptitude as in the day of the sergeant’s rule.

On the next morning they were tried before an elected committee of miners and sentenced to a week’s solitary confinement on bread and water, with a significant hint that on the second offence the more severe Californian penalties would be inflicted. This had the desired effect. An example was at once shown and terror struck into those baser natures that can be ruled in no other way. We and others who had valuable claims were not sorry to see that order would be enforced. We, therefore, in every way assisted by personal influence and otherwise to sustain so desirable a state of self-government.

That the bank officials did not by any means approve of the present state of matters may be supposed. They saw themselves surrounded by a heterogenous population from whom the ordinary restraints had been suddenly withdrawn. At any moment an organised band of desperadoes might arrange to make a descent upon any given bank when it was well known that thousands of pounds’ worth of notes and sovereigns besides large deposits of gold were in their safes. In a general way these officials were highly popular; such being the rule among managers detailed for gold-fields’ work, and the ordinary mode of life being favourable to a frank bearing joined with business habitudes. But they had formerly had all the police at their backs; the strong arm of the law could always be invoked for their protection. Now they were virtually helpless, merely trusting to the good faith and honourable feeling of a body of men who had openly defied the recognised authorities. The position was not reassuring.

Superficial readers of the great book of human nature might have deemed that it was a favourable time for the return of the bushrangers, who, since the police had been withdrawn, had no disciplined force to oppose. A fatal error! Had Frank Lardner’s gang presumed upon any feeling of sympathy among the miners their career would have had a premature ending.

The mining community of the Oxley had revolted against their rulers and the Government of the day because they saw the hard won privileges of their order handed over to an inferior race, while their remonstrances were neglected or contemned. They had openly stated their grievances and, failing adequate redress, had then taken arms against the authorities, in the light of day. But Lardner, Wall, and the rest of the gang had proved themselves assassins in the first instance, and robbers afterwards. They had stolen the gold which represented months of toil, often persevered in (for the diseases of camps claimed a daily toll) while the hand was heavy and the heart faint with sickness nigh unto death. And had they shown their faces on the Oxley at that critical period, Judge Lynch would have been assuredly presented with a commission, when a quick trial and a short shrift would very probably have stamped out robbery under arms, and saved the lives of scores of better men in the days that were to come.

No such sensational visitors, however, turned up. Even Malgrade, Big Harry, and a few others of the leading spirits of the Alsatia at Murderers’ Flat, appeared somewhat subdued, having received warning, we afterwards heard, that a corps akin to the Californian Vigilantes was in process of formation.

The Committee plainly made it apparent that no irregularity would be tolerated by the mining commune so suddenly organised, excepting that of disestablishing John Chinaman. Gold was plentiful in a general way. The Oxley was what is called ‘a good poor man’s diggings.’ That is, most men—even those who were not lucky—were getting what they called ‘wages and a trifle over’—meaning four or five pounds a week. A certain amount of ready money, arising from fairly remunerated labour, equally distributed among the populace, has always—and I speak from experience—an effect conducive to propriety and self-respect. Thus at the Oxley, though it came to my knowledge that a ‘big thing’ was planned and very nearly came off, no unlawful interference with the banking treasuries occurred in any one instance during the rule of the provisional government. Indeed, a kind of Utopian order and good guidance for a while prevailed—that kind of government ‘of the people for the people by the people’ for which so many ardent patriots have written and spoken, have fought and bled, died by sword and spear, axe and scaffold—from the dim darksome eld till now. How long this state of things might have lasted is another matter!

But it could not be denied by the worst enemies of democracy that, the casus belli effectually removed, nothing could have been more satisfactory to a philanthropist than the appearance and internal condition of the Oxley. In the streets of our strange city were seen none of the mournful degraded forms of poverty, no travesties of human nature, patiently carrying out a sentence of want, hunger, and degradation during their stay on earth. There were no poor in rags, no houseless women, no aged paupers, no gutter children, no street boys, no outcasts. All the viler types of humanity which deform great cities, and even the denser rural populations of the old world, were conspicuous by their absence. The schools were well and regularly attended. The churches of the various denominations, the pastors of which all remained at their posts, were crowded on the Sabbath. These good men had in truth never ceased to exhort to submission and to warn their congregations to keep from all riotous and violent proceedings. In a general way they possessed much influence. But this was one of the slow culminating crises—outbursts of human society—which kings, priests, or rulers are alike powerless to prevent.

I by no means wish to assert that our confederated community was free from the ordinary sins and breaches of the moral law under this provisional government. But there was, as under the old régime, a wondrously small amount of open or shameless evil. There was but little perceptible wrong-doing, nothing overt which would cause the lover of his kind to grieve and point to the bad influence of the auri sacra fames. Quite the contrary, in fact. Whether under our old-world despotism, or the newer lights of poor Radetsky, Mark Thursby, and the rest, a more serious, well-mannered, orderly-appearing settlement than that of the Oxley did not exist upon the earth. There were human beasts of prey among them, doubtless. They were but as the wolves and pumas which prowl around a herd of buffaloes. An isolated or heedless individual separated from its fellows might be occasionally beset; but on the least alarm there are a thousand trampling feet, a thousand glaring eyes and levelled horns, ready to crush to earth or toss lifeless in the air the base intruder, cowardly as savage.

Even those that were physically unable to endure the strain of manual labour found here rest and ease. A perennial side-stream of charity, flowing from the main channel of golden gain, enriched these weaklings and feeble brethren. Miners are always free-handed, so long as the tide of Pactolus runs not low, and in the patronage of the smaller industries, or in more direct alms-giving, the old, the worn-out, and the afflicted, found ready sympathy and ample aid.

One of those invaluable literary caterers for modern civilisation, ever ready to construct historiettes concerning lands which he has never seen and societies which he can never have entered, describes in one Australian novel (save the mark) a lovely and distressed damsel, reft from her friends, and chained to the pole of a tent by a ruffian band of diggers. In another improving tale the prepossessing, if not, perhaps, immaculate heroine, is publicly disposed of by lottery and carried off by the winner. How utterly, childishly impossible such occurrences could have been in the wildest days of mining adventure, let any digger say. Shades of the Sergeant! fancy his majestic indignation when, from information received, he started forth to arrest such flagrant and foolhardy criminals.

His strides would have lengthened to those which were conferred upon the wearer of the seven-leagued boots; his very gaze would have burned up the perpetrators of so unmanly, so unparalleled an outrage; and the shortest possible interval would have elapsed between the first whisper of the atrocities and the safe lodgment of all the parties to the disgrace in the historic logs, en route for the district gaol.

No! that strange scenes have been enacted in all mining communities I am not pledged to deny, but as far as my experiences of the Oxley and Yatala go, premier goldfields of Australia, on each of which twenty or thirty tons of gold had been unearthed within five years, where four millions sterling were divided among thirty or forty thousand men, such occurrences were not only never heard of, but were far more impossible of occurrence than in the very heart of London or Paris. Whatever the Miners’ shortcomings, the lack of a chivalric courtesy, of a deeply-rooted respect for womanhood is not among them.

Mr. Bright, the manager of the Bank of New Holland, was so far from being uneasy at the situation that he positively gloried in the warlike aspect and ‘besieged resident’ sort of business in which we existed. We all believed that he would have rather liked the bank to have been ‘stuck up’ with fair notice. A proverbially good shot and quick with his weapons, he carried a regular battery about with him for fear of being suddenly beset. We used to say that his customers were afraid to put their hands in their pockets to extricate a check for fear he might suspect them of feeling for a revolver and let fly at once. One day the Major and I, strolling down the street, heard a shot in the bank.

‘Hallo! Bright has enticed in a band of robbers at last,’ said the Major. ‘It’s a pity to spoil his pleasure, but we may as well look in for fear of accidents.’

When we got in it was another matter altogether. Our friend did not look so radiant and rubicund as usual. A fume of gun-powder and a hole in the floor suggested an accidental shot. It appeared that he sat down rather suddenly, and jarring one of the pistols which he wore round his waist, like the pirate captains of our youth, a six-shooter exploded, tearing through his coat-tail and burying a bullet in the floor unpleasantly near to his big toe.

Congratulations and libations having succeeded, he bewailed his lot in being cast in so fearful a region. Not even during a rebellion had any one the pluck to do anything out of the common. However, he had advices that military and even naval reinforcements were on the road. The rebels would be routed and discomfited in no time.

‘How’s Radetsky getting on? Poor devil! I shouldn’t wonder, Major when the regulars come up if they hang all the leaders, yourself included, on that big tree in the camp reserve.’

‘Radetsky will escape their clutches,’ the Major said calmly. ‘By Jove! I sometimes wish I was as near the end as he is.’

‘Pooh, pooh!’ said the banker good-humouredly, ‘wait till that No. 4 of yours is in full work again, and even without that small property you can clear out for Europe and pick up your old form again. I wish I had the chance.’

‘Something always seems to come in the way of our luck,’ said the Major. ‘First, those scoundrels of jumpers, and then this beastly émeute about Chinamen. I suppose we shall have a Russian invasion next, if the claim is proved good in law.’

On the following day it was announced that Radetsky was dying. The fiery enthusiast, the excited patriot, the descendant of an ancient line and representative of a gallant nation, was about to end his days in a rude hut in a mining settlement in a far, half-unknown land. He whose childhood had been passed among nobles and princes, petted by fond relatives, ministered to by devoted servants, was now dying alone and untended save by the charitable offices of his ‘mate,’ a peasant compatriot, and the neighbours, as even on a diggings the adjoining workers are called.

Not that much was wanting which could be of real benefit to the wounded man. The hut was small but scrupulously clean, and no care or watching was omitted that skill or kindness could devise. The principal medical man of the district, a duly qualified surgeon of high attainments and world-wide experience, had attended him from the day of his hurt. It was thought at first that he would recover, as the bullet had not touched any vital portion of his frame. But the man’s tameless excitable nature was against him. He could not be induced to keep quiet during the first days of the campaign, and at length, when fever and delirium set in, and the sick man commenced to rave about the Austrian Cuirassiers and the charges against the Imperial troops he had led, to count up his wounds, and to name the name of Haynau with tireless execration, Dr. Burnside told his mate that his time was come.

‘He will never make another speech, poor fellow,’ said the kind-hearted medico; ‘if he had been an Englishman or a German I could have pulled him through, but these Sclaves are as bad as Celts, they will subordinate their reason to their emotions. You might as well try to cure an untrained Norway falcon.’

So a few days before the important news of the arrival of the military put all other matters out of the Miners’ heads, the news of Radetsky’s death, when announced, seemed to stir the heart of every creature on the goldfield. He had had a short lucid interval before his last agony, had lamented that he could not have died for Poland, but rejoiced that the blood of the last male of the ancient house of Radetsky had been shed for liberty. Every male of his line for three generations had perished by sword or bullet in the field in freedom’s cause; and though he would leave his bones in this far land, the celestial spirit of freedom would hallow his grave. He thanked his comrades of every nation for their sympathy and noble kindness, and then died calmly and contentedly, believing that when the miners were again aroused to strike for liberty the occasion would always revive the name of Stanislas Radetsky.

That night it was announced in every form of public proclamation that all the honours of a military funeral had been decreed by the Executive of the United Miners to their leader and true comrade deceased, and that every miner was expected to attend, that the pall-bearers would leave the chapel at noon precisely, and that the procession would attend the corpse to the cemetery at Green Point Hill.

Never was such melancholy invitation more universally acceded to. It is a matter of fact and history that hardly a creature able to perform or provide locomotion, above the age of infancy, was absent from the gathering to do honour to the dead. Every shred and fragment of black cloth, crape, lace, or calico on the field was put into requisition that day. From early morning till midday the roads leading into the township were thronged with crowds so mixed and various that one would have fancied that an exodus was about to take place under pressure of national defeat or impending calamity. Men, women, and children, even to the toddling bairn and the babe that could not be left at home, were all there, all with one accord eager to pay the last poor tribute of respect to the gallant exile who had lived in peace and goodwill for long years unpretendingly and honourably with his humble comrades, and had now sealed with his blood his devotion to freedom and justice.

For long hours crowds pressed round his humble abode where this last descendant of the proud house of Radetsky had passed away, gazing with strong feeling and even with tears upon the calm face of the dead. The haughty regular features were still. There was a frown upon the tameless brow; they could hardly believe that the bright eagle eye had ceased to flash beneath the heavy lids which had been lovingly closed. It seemed hard to think that a form so highly vitalised, so infused through every nerve with eager force and restless energy, could die—could lie cold, motionless, unheeding of the hum and stir and beating hearts of the multitude around, whose pulses he knew so well how to stir with his wild, earnest, defiant words.

It was even so. The delicately moulded but sinewy hand was nerveless now, the hot pulse stilled, the tender, fearless heart cold in death. The tongue that could denounce or defy, persuade or command, was silent for evermore. The brave ally of the weak and the oppressed, the friend of the needy, the brother of the forlorn and deserted, had passed away to the land where truth is crowned and justice reigns eternal.

There was nothing left but to turn away and weep, and to tread with slow sad steps the familiar track to the grassy pine-shaded cemetery on the rocky hill. The dead man was carried to the chapel in his coffin by four compatriots—for the sons of betrayed Poland were numerous among the cosmopolitan roving gold-seekers, that great wave of humanity which first rolled from western and southern Europe to America in the days of the Californian wonder-treasures, thence to the half-fabulous land of the Antipodes.

There Father O’Rourke, an unobtrusively pious priest, who had never ceased to warn his flock against their illegal action and rash deeds, but had not quitted his post, read the prayers appointed over him. Again the coffin was raised on the shoulders of the pall-bearers, and slowly and mournfully the whole vast procession took their way to the pine-crested hill, where the Commissioner’s fancy had decreed that the dead should lie. Behind the pall-bearers came a long array of vehicles—buggies, phaetons, dog-carts, express-waggons, every conceivable kind of carriage in use in the neighbourhood. Then, two and two, a thousand horsemen, winding in an immensely long undulating line. The guilds and brotherhoods and societies walked in array, all carrying the regalia of their orders, and rich with banners and plumes. Then an army of dark-clothed miners, followed by a confused multitude—men, women, and children.

Had any one visited the Oxley township that day, it must have looked like a fabled city of the dead, so thoroughly deserted was it. The day was cloudless and bright. The faint breeze caused the forest trees to quiver and rustle, the river murmured and rippled all unheeding. How strange a contrast with the day’s bright tints, the sombre dark-hued crowd with their dread burden in the fore-front, and the Dead March in Saul pealing and reverberating through the hushed silence of the forest.

But a few weeks since, and he whom they mourned had been strong, eager, tameless by toil or ease, hunger or thirst, fear or favour. Temperate always, yet patient at his rude labour, there yet always seemed within the man a smouldering fire of hatred of injustice, of resistance to tyranny, of sympathy for the weak, defiance for the strong oppressor, which needed but a breath of sympathy or antagonism to fan into the red glowing blaze of revolt and resistance. His lot was latterly cast amid untoward surroundings, but of such material have the world’s unforgotten brave, her patriots, heroes, and martyrs, been ever constructed.

Hours passed of the clear, bright winter day, and still the procession seemed winding along the road to the cemetery. When, however, the corpse with its attendant mourners, with the priest and the leaders of the procession, were seen to enter the cemetery, the line of march was broken up, and in open order those who were mounted rode at speed for the gates, while those on foot strove by short cuts and quickened pace to make up for other deficiencies.

When the grave was opened and the coffin lowered, the priest raised his voice and commenced the service for the dead. Every knee was bent, every voice was hushed, and the great crowd inside the enclosure and as far as the eye could reach knelt as one man, honouring in that hour him who, in their estimation, had fallen for the sacred cause of liberty and for his fellowmen.

More than half of those who thus bent the knee did not belong to the Romish faith. But this was an occasion when all men are equal in the sight of God, the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, before whom the wise and the unlearned are alike helpless, alike dumb. May none ever do anything more unbecoming to their own faith than to act as we did that day—falling on our knees by the grave of the man all had loved, and praying to God for his soul’s rest.

In a few moments more the solemn and touching service was ended. The cemetery was speedily emptied, the crowd broke up, and each section of the assembly sought its home, those who were mounted returning at a pace very different from that of the morning.

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