The Miner’s Right

Chapter XXIII

Rolf Boldrewood

OF COURSE the Government of the colony of New South Wales was not inclined to rest peaceably while its laws were being broken, its officers withstood, and in offensive foreigners violently treated and driven out by force of arms. No one expected that for one moment. The British ensign, since it first floated to the breeze above the scarped sandstone natural fortresses of Sydney, has ever truly symbolised the good faith and firm rule of the parent land. The will of the people has never been pandered to by the ministries of the day, ever justly dreading that weakness of the Executive which has been the curse of all lands where its evil growth has been fostered.

No sooner had the official despatches reached Sydney than efforts were promptly made to march to the scene of revolt every available soldier, sailor, marine, and volunteer that could be impressed for the expedition.

By good luck, as some persons thought, a man-of-war was reposing peacefully in the harbour, and within twenty-four hours her gallant captain, his force of marines and bluejackets, with a couple of guns for siege purposes if necessary, had started with the regiment then in barracks and a strong body of volunteers, for a three-hundred-mile march across the Blue Mountains to the head-waters of the Oxley.

It was a toilsome and not over pleasant journey. There were no transmontane railways in those days, and many obstacles had to be encountered. The weather was cold, even frosty, as one of the sailors of the Collingwood discovered when, having committed an act of pillage, he was promptly court-marshalled, tied up to a gun, and received three dozen at 6.30 A.M., to the surprise and consternation of the provincials.

However, though ranking beneath Sir Charles Napier’s march through Scinde and other feats of endurance, the difficulties of the march were gallantly met and at length surmounted. The army, with guns in position, colours flying, and all the pomp and circumstance of glorious war, marched into the Oxley, and took up a position in the rear of the camp, which had been promptly vacated at the rumour of their approach. With them also returned the whole available police force of the district, accompanied, of course, by Mr. Merlin, Mr. Bagstock, and the sergeant. Captain Blake, who was an old friend of the colonel of the 70th, accompanied that regiment, and rejoiced in renewing his mess recollections and the routine of military life.

As for our rebels, they were much disorganised, and as usual intestine feuds had weakened their organisation. Now that the Chinese had been driven forth and the coveted shallow ground placed in the possession of the legitimate miner, the revolutionary business became distinctly a bore. Much time was wasted by the committee elected to administer justice in the matter of mining disputes. It was wearisome enough to listen to the interminable technical details which are indispensable in mining evidence, and apparently not more satisfaction was produced than of old. The suitors quarrelled and wrangled and accused the mining assessors of being partial, prejudiced, or indeed interested—charges which no one ever thought of bringing against the Commissioner or the magistrates.

Their total freedom from aristocratic and official guidance was not such a grand thing after all. It was a white elephant, costly, troublesome, and increasingly difficult to support.

The great body of the mining population was too intelligent, well-intentioned, and respectable to succeed brilliantly in revolt. They had no special aims of their own to serve, no restless ambitions, no covetousness of wealth or power for their own sakes. All that they wished was that they might be permitted to enjoy their fascinating occupation in peace, and that no hated aliens of inferior races should be suffered to swarm among their camps, and spread themselves locust-fashion over their beloved shallow ground—the prize and blue riband, as it were, of the toilsome mining life.

And now the task was done, they did not longer care to play out the farce of government and police administration. After all it was better done by people trained to it and paid for it. All this gratis magisterial work was a nuisance, and dreadfully expensive in time to the few leading miners into whose hands it fell. Such considerations as these were not suffered to sleep for want of iteration and support by the Major and myself, as well as by scores of men of the same calibre and higher logical acumen, of whom the diggings are full.

Fortunately little blood had been spilled. Except Radetsky, no man’s life had been sacrificed. The Chinese, no doubt, had been beaten and badly handled. Sonora Joe, and some of his friends who had seen scalps taken, it is feared shore more than closely in severing pigtails. They could bring actions for damages.

Now that the soldiers had come, it became necessary either to resolve to stand committed to an obstinate and bloody contest, sure to be a losing one in the end, or to lay down their arms.

For many reasons it was thought advisable to consider seriously of the latter course.

With the military and naval forces now near at hand, it was reported that the colonial secretary, Sir Charles Camden, a veteran politician, a native-born Australian, and a most able diplomatist, had accompanied them. This was considered by the moderate party to be a felicitous circumstance. Sir Charles was a man whom his enemies called the High Priest of the Expedient, and his friends knew to be uniformly successful when a dangerous difficulty needed the solvents of tact and timely concession. It is just possible to fancy that his occasional lack of uncompromising firmness led to political catastrophes. But once let the imbroglio be fairly developed and disaster imminent, there did not live in the southern hemisphere a man so effective in unravelling the tangled skein and reducing the chaotic elements to order and safety.

On a certain Monday morning, therefore, the advanced guard of the force, consisting of six companies of the 70th, marched with colours flying and bugles blowing into the camp reserve. Here they were presently joined by the volunteers, finally by the sailors and marines, the former dragging with them their two formidable pieces of ordnance.

To their astonishment they were loudly cheered on taking up position in front of the line, as they coolly unlimbered and got their artillery ready for action.

Before all this took place, however, Sir Charles had driven quietly into town in a dog-cart, with his servant behind him, while the plain, middle-sized, quietly-dressed man who sat behind and who slipped down and mingled easily with the crowd was a distinguished colonel of engineers, then in Sydney on leave, who had joined the expedition as a matter of interesting inquiry and novel experience.

When it was found that there was no disposition on the part of the miners to continue their independent government, but that the camp and other Imperial strongholds were delivered up in good order and condition, even with the addition of a couple of prisoners in one of the cells awaiting trial for petty larceny, negotiations were established between Sir Charles Camden and the leading representative miners. The upshot of this was that the Government revised the Goldfields Regulations, making, among other changes and alterations, by the Commissioner’s advice, one which rendered illegal any occupation by Chinese for the purpose of gold mining upon auriferous ground which had not been worked and abandoned by Europeans for the full term of three years.

This satisfied the mining community, and healed the rankling sore which threatened such dangerous if not fatal results to the body politic. Shallow ground and new ground would henceforth be hermetically sealed to the Mongolian. The virtuous Caucasian proprietor and his followers of the true faith would be henceforth enabled to possess their souls in peace. I am not quite sure whether our ally, the Emperor of China, upon whom we forced our enterprising opium traders in and around certain jealously closed ports, would have considered it strictly in accordance with international justice. But it was a measure highly expedient, if not vitally necessary. For that reason, or because it was ‘a far cry to Lochow,’ or, in other words, a long way from the Oxley to Pekin, no protest on the part of his Celestial Highness reached us.

Sergeant MacMahon made a few arrests, including some of the leading rioters, against whom evidence of violence or special ill-treatment of Chinese was forthcoming, and they were duly committed for trial at the next ensuing Quarter Sessions. They were held to bail, and duly tried. But the juries refused to bring them in guilty, and with their discharge ended peacefully the great Oxley Flat émeute, now only of fading historical interest.

We, individually, were unaffectedly sorry when the troops left. There was an old comrade or two of the Major’s among the officers, and though they chaffed him as having been found in arms against the Sovereign, and so on, we held high revelry, and had many pleasant excursions and rambles while the sailors and soldiers remained. Mr. Bright was also a favoured guest, and his warlike reminiscences gave the allied warriors much material for surprise and thought. He always averred that his counsels and influence with Sir Charles, to whom he was intimately known, contributed materially to the final and effective settlement of the question at issue. With the departing troops a gold escort service was improvised, which carried down all the gold which had accumulated, to the joint relief of bankers and depositors, among which last we were numbered.

The time had passed so quickly during all these abnormal and exciting proceedings, that we were quite surprised to find that our appeal case was on in the Supreme Court of New South Wales, held in Sydney.

Dr. Bellair went down in person to represent his friends and clients. But all his eloquence and fiery declamation availed him nothing with the modern Rhadamanthus and his periwigged compeers. The appeal was dismissed, with so swingeing an amount of costs as against the appellants that all thought of testing the merits of the case further was peremptorily abandoned. No higher court of judicature remained, except the Imperial Privy Council, with which ultimate legal resort, or indeed with the fraternity generally, the principal backers (on the Doctor’s having tentatively defined its functions) refused, ‘in Anglo-Saxon of the strongest kind that’s made,’ to have further truck or trouble.

Thus at length we found ourselves, after all our delays and anxieties, in indisputable possession of the celebrated and coveted No. 4. Our Oxley claim was doing so well that we felt a slight embarras de richesses, but after a solemn council we decided to send Cyrus and Joe back, with authority to put on men and place the claim once more in full working order. Mrs. Yorke at once commenced to pack up her effects; stating at the same time that she was ‘full up of the Oxley, which was a rowdy, disagreeable gold-field as ever she was on, not a patch on old Yatala for comfort, which she had two minds never to have come away from, only Cyrus was a man that always wanted looking after, being that soft and good-natured as anybody might get round him, and run him to spend money on all sorts of foolishness, as well as taking shares in every duffer-lead on the field, as even his own children picked up from the shepherds was no good.’

While this full explanation of the defects of his character was proceeding, much to our amusement, though from our intimate knowledge of our mate’s ways we had little to learn, Mrs. Yorke was working away most energetically and effectively, while Cyrus smoked his pipe with an air of philosophical calmness, as if his wife was opening up a subject of entirely new points of interest and abstract bearing.

As soon as we had finished the next wash-up, I was to go back to Yatala to supervise the management, audit the accounts, and so on, finally arranging for the carrying on of the two branches of our mining partnership, either of itself immensely lucrative, but none the less needing both energy and careful guidance to result in the splendid financial success we now so plainly saw before us.

.     .     .     .     .

In a couple of weeks, having had the satisfaction of seeing a goodly store of the unmistakable metal lying on the rude wooden receptacle of the machine, after all the clay and water-worn pebbles and extremely yellow water had been finally run off, thence transferred to a camp kettle and carefully banked, I returned to Yatala to look up Cyrus and No. 4.

The old town, though kept on its legs principally by the frontage claims of which ours was a sample, was comparatively deserted. Whole streets and suburbs appeared to have vanished, and the grass was growing on many a floor where we had been on good terms with the occupants, and occasionally spent festive hours.

Some of the old identities still survived, and among them were Mrs. Mangrove and old John who had so loyally backed us in our days of adversity. That speculative but forecasting matron was overjoyed at our return.

‘I always stuck to it, Harry and his crowd would come out all straight some day,’ she said exultingly; ‘didn’t I, John, old man? I always said the Major would drop in lucky, for all those yaller books of his. Nothing like taking it cool and not breaking out in the drink line when the party was down in the mouth for a spell, as one might say. Some men would have been on their backs for a week at a stretch with the hard times you’ve gone through. But I always did like a party with a smart clever woman like that little Mrs. Yorke of yours among ’em to do for ’em and keep ’em straight. And your sweetheart at home, Harry, she brought you luck, you may swear. I suppose you’ll go back and marry her when the claim’s worked out and the Oxley regular done up, and forget all of us roughs here.’

‘I shall never forget you, old woman,’ I said, ‘you may depend your life on that, nor John either; so make your mind easy. See what a present I’ll send you out from the old country.’

‘I think John and me had better go home too,’ said Mrs. Mangrove. ‘You might get another rough turn, and want somebody as knew you to be your backer again, Harry my boy.’

‘No, no! none of that,’ quoth John, laying his pipe provisionally on his knee, a habit of his on the rare occasions when he thought fit to confirm or contravene the course of the executive department. ‘England’s too far off to follow a rush, and too dashed cold into the bargain. I couldn’t stand it now.’

‘What! worse than Hokitiki or Kiandra?’ said his experienced helpmate. ‘Don’t you remember our getting snowed up on the Long Plain, and having to feed the horses on the flour they was a packin’?’

‘Yes, that was rather a close thing,’ assented John. ‘We was pretty near used up when they found us. I should ha’ been dead only for that spare flannel petticoat of yours; but there’s no get away in the old country, that’s what I look at, and no gold neither, except what you brings in your breeches pocket. I reckon we’ll stick to old New South Wales, for as bad as it is, while our time lasts.’

‘I reckon we may as well,’ said his superior officer, ‘unless anything happen to you, and then up stick and clear out, John. I never could fancy being shovelled in here; that graveyard always puts me in mind of a shallow rush on purchased land, where they make you fill in all the duffer shafts. We never did no good on purchased land, did we, John?’

‘Well, if that’s all as troubles ye, old woman, you’d better get the Commissioner to register you a fancy business allotment there and you can make the improvements all ready for the last decision, fancy marble crib, headstone and all complete. Only some o’ those fossickers would come rooting round with a dish after a shower, prospecting, like, for any specimens ye might have taken with ye.’

‘Don’t talk of such dreadful things,’ said our usually unprejudiced marchande, shuddering superstitiously. ‘As sure as your name’s John Mangrove, some one will lose the number of their mess before the week’s out. I’ve known it happen a score of times before now. You’d better be off to your bed afore you make any more pleasant remarks.’

This broke up the sitting, and we all departed; but strange and grotesque as were the ideas suggested, none of us treated the presentiment with such indifference as to jest upon it. Unlikely as were all the circumstances, and superior as was our position to what it had been of late years, I could not help confessing to an involuntary feeling of gloom and boding fear which I tried in vain to shake off.

On the morning after the conversation recorded we were hard at work arranging for future business. The claim was too good to be left alone for more than a day or two at a time, and the wages men, like all other day labourers, were none the worse for personal supervision. Cyrus Yorke and three miners were detailed for the day shift, and went on accordingly after breakfast, the others, with Joe Bulder, having their allotment of labour during the hours of darkness.

On our way to the claim, our large friend was in unusual spirits. He had made a match with his horse for the following Saturday afternoon holiday, and flattered himself that his antagonist had under-rated the pace and breeding of his nag. Like most Australians, and one Blount in the service of the late lamented Lord Marmion, Cyrus was a ‘sworn horse-courser.’ He was, indeed, a thoroughly good judge, and, heavy as he was, a first-class rider and whip. He had picked up a thorough-bred horse, which had found his way, more or less feloniously and unlawfully, into the Yatala pound, and had been sold out, poor, ragged, and studiously disfigured, for considerably under his value. By New South Wales law, and indeed by that of nearly all the other colonies, a pound sale gives a perfect and indefeasible title to any animal sold therefrom, no matter what equilarcenous acts may have led to his incarceration.

So Saracen, a great upstanding, weight-carrying bay, ‘tower of strength, with a turn of speed,’ a son of the well-known imported English blood sire Saladin, had at second-hand become his property for the sum of thirty pounds and a wash-dirt cart.

It was more than whispered that Larry Lurcher had stolen the animal, then in training, out of his stables on a great breeding station to the north, ridden him a hundred miles by day-dawn, and ‘worked’ him with the aid of, as it turned out, untrustworthy confederates into the Yatala pound. One of these said confederates was to buy him out of the pound and hand him over to ‘the first robber’ directly afterwards, thus to evade suspicion.

This worthy person did buy the horse, but utterly declined to convey him by legal receipt to his fellow thief. Larry of course could not explain the transaction sufficiently to regain his property by legal process. So the unjust one triumphed, and unblushingly resold Saracen (for his name had leaked out) for just double what he had given, and had the wash-dirt cart, with fifteen pounds more to the good—Mr. Merlin notwithstanding. This official was in possession of the facts of the case—the name of the former owner of the horse, the night upon which he had been stolen, the distance he had been ridden, and lastly the name of the thief. But he had no evidence to connect the adroit receiver with the stolen property. There was not material for ‘a case.’ So he had to acquiesce in hard fortune, and to smile upon the felon, mentally reserving him for a day of wrath.

Since Cyrus Yorke had become possessed of Saracen, he had improved immensely, and was now ‘fit to go for a man’s life,’ as he said. I never saw Cyrus in better spirits, though to do him justice, hard fortune or good, he was always ready to enjoy himself, holding to such proverbs as ‘care killed a cat,’ ‘a short life and a merry one,’ ‘it will be all one in a hundred years,’ and other wise saws tending to decry undue forethought and anxiety for the morrow.

‘My word,’ he said, just before I put my leg into the bight of the rope and prepared to descend the one hundred feet of our shaft, ‘we’re getting rich now, and no mistake. I never expected to see the cash rolling in, hand over hand, like this here. I feel as if I’d more than I know what to do with already. If it wasn’t for the old woman and the kids I’d cut it, sell out, and buy a few farms on the Hawkesbury as would keep me the rest of my life. If I win this match with Saracen on Saturday, I don’t know as I won’t do it now.’

‘Don’t do anything rash, Cyrus,’ I said; ‘better see the claim worked out, and then you can bank your money and live like a gentleman.’

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