‘All right, Harry,’ he said good-humouredly, ‘don’t be afraid, old man, I’m good for a year’s work yet, anyhow. Wait till I get down directly and I’ll show you how a native can handle a pick. That Joe Bulder’s a good man, but he can’t do the day’s work I can turn out, though he is a Britisher. Can he now?’
‘He certainly cannot,’ I conceded, ‘nor any other man in the claim; only you’re not quite so regular as he is.’
‘You get out of my way, then, old Parson Harry. I’ll be down directly after you send the rope up; don’t be long. Lower away.’
I slid softly down with my foot in the bight of the rope below the rim of mother-earth, and in the requisite number of seconds was safely on the shaft bottom, from which I retreated into a sideling gallery called ‘a drive,’ and was about to question a wages man as to how they were doing when I heard a sudden, rushing, unwonted sound, terminating in a horrible dull thud upon the hard earth at the bottom of the shaft. How my heart sickened! How did my blood run cold as I knew it must be a man! I rushed to the shaft. Several men from the other interior workings met there. We raised the man, for it was one, and little but the outward presentment of what was once Cyrus Yorke. He was not insensible, better had he been so. His first words were, ‘Oh, my God! my back, my back!’
When we raised him his whole frame was nerveless, dreadfully limp, and incapable of being supported in an upright position. Then we found, amid his groans and involuntary cries, that both legs were broken, an arm, with possibly internal injuries superadded.
He was fastened in an impromptu chair and drawn up with the aid of another miner, who went up with him, holding him as tenderly as a brother. It is in the time of real disaster, of mortal hurt, that one sees the true value of the manly heart. Little is said, there are no professions, but the proverbial feminine tenderness is often equalled by that of the chance comrades whose ordinary speech would lead a superficial observer to infer that not one grain of sentiment could abide with the rough exterior and ruder utterances.
Cyrus had full possession of his senses, and in answer to a question as to how he fell, groaned out, ‘I forgot the sprag.’ In the exuberance of his spirits he had jumped on to the rope and neglected to see that the wooden wedge, which when placed in the iron roller arrests and acts as a brake to the outrunning rope, was in its place. The unchecked rope ran through the roller with tremendous velocity, and poor Cyrus reached the bottom of the shaft almost as rapidly as though he had thrown himself down it.
There was no hope from the first. A messenger was sent to tell his wife that the earth had fallen in, and that her man was badly hurt. This is the most common phase of mining accident; for this every miner’s wife is more or less prepared. In many instances they do not terminate fatally. There is generally some hope; but poor Mrs. Yorke fortunately dreaded the worst, and cried out when she saw the little procession—
‘Oh, Cyrus! oh, my man! He’ll never get off his bed. I dreamed of it the other night. If they’ve got to carry him, he’s a dead man. I know before they tell me.’
However, she braced herself to the task, and with dry eyes was soon busied in making ready for him the bed, which, though in a poor tent, was neater and more scrupulously tended than in many a grander abode.
As the four men approached with the bark stretcher, upon which lay the huge frame of the magnificent athlete who had gone forth that morning in all the frolic spirits of youth rejoicing in his strength, there was already a small crowd collected near the tent door. His wife came forward, and giving one rapid despairing glance threw herself upon a low chair and covered her face with her hands. Then she walked forward, and bending down kissed the pale face of the death-stricken miner, already tortured by the spasms of mortal agony.
‘Never mind, old woman,’ he said, with an effort to make his big voice sound cheery and careless as of old, ‘don’t take on so. The doctor won’t mend me, I’m thinking; but you’ll have enough for your share of the claim to keep you and the kids for your lives.’
‘Don’t talk of the claim. I wish we’d never seen it. Oh, my God! have pity on me! Lay him down gently on the bed, please. Why can’t I die too?’
There was no need to ask them to lay their ghastly burden down gently. A dozen willing hands were at once proffered, and as lightly as a babe by its mother was the injured man laid upon the bed he was never to quit alive.
Then almost mutely, but with looks and gestures full of heartfelt commiseration, such as could not have been surpassed in the most polished society of the old world, the crowd reverently and heedfully went on its way and left the mourners to their sorrowful duties.
The nearest doctor was at once sent for. He came with little delay; but beyond swathing up the wounded man, so that present pain was minimised, nothing could be done.
The wife looked long and searchingly at his impassive countenance, but found there no hope, alas!
‘How long shall I have my senses, doctor?’ said poor Cyrus.
‘Forty-eight hours, perhaps,’ said the man of sickness, wounds, and death. How many death-beds had he seen? ‘You had better make any arrangements to-morrow, in case of accident. If you feel the pains coming on badly, take some of the draught I leave you, but not unless you can’t do without it. Good-day!’
I walked out to the road with the doctor, and as far as the nearest hotel, no great distance.
‘No chance of recovery, I suppose, doctor?’ I said tentatively.
‘My dear fellow, he has hurts enough to kill all four of you—severe internal injuries, fractured spine, broken thighs, arm, bah! he’s a dead man now. Sensible woman, his wife—pity.’
‘Poor Cyrus, it’s a frightfully sudden end. What will you take, doctor?’
‘Brandy, I think—three star.’
All the next day we watched over our poor comrade. Though the pain which he suffered was at times agonising to the limit of human endurance, he was perfectly conscious, and in full possession of his senses.
‘That’s what makes it so hard to bear,’ he said, in one of the intervals when he lay calmed by the powerful narcotic draught, after a paroxysm of unusual fierceness. ‘Here am I took, accidental like, all through a minute’s cursed carelessness, and me as never had a day’s illness, or knowed what it was to be sick or sorry, not once in my life afore. And just as I had my pile pretty well made, so as we’d no call to be grizzlin’ and bustin’ ourselves for money as long as we lived. Well,’ he said reflectively, after a pause, ‘I haven’t been what folks call a religious cove, but I never wished anybody any harm, and I never done a mean act in my life. And I do feel it hard—precious hard—to be rubbed out like this, after followin’ the diggings so long, just as I’ve made the first rise.’
Towards nightfall he felt easier, and as he lay with his wife’s hand in his, one might have hoped, but for the cruel irreparable shattering of his whole frame, that a favourable change was at hand. He, however, mistrusted it himself.
‘You’ve been a good wife to me, little woman,’ he said to his wife, who now sat looking at him with a fixed gaze of grief, as if the fount of tears was dry, ‘and I’ve not behaved bad to you, that is, as far as I knowed how. When I’m gone, you stick to your shares in the claims till they’re clean worked out, and then you go and settle down on the Hawkesbury where we both was reared, and buy a good farm, and eddicate the poor kids well. And if you marry again, as women mostly does, and I don’t see why you shouldn’t, you pick a sensible, steady chap, as’ll take care of you and them. I shan’t have nothin’ to say again it. And now, kiss me, old woman, and bring in the poor young uns and the babby, bless his little round mug, for them pains is a comin’ on agin, and they won’t have their father much longer, I’m afeared.’
At dawn he passed away; and when the miners went forth to their daily work that morning, the giant frame of him whom all had known in robust health and spirits but two short days before lay cold and stiff for evermore.
We buried him near Radetsky, whom he had followed to the grave, little deeming that he himself was so soon to be laid beside him, and a crowd of mourners only inferior in number to those who formed the death march in honour of the patriot exile paid the last tribute of respect to the big, jolly, generous comrade whom they all knew so well.
As for Mrs. Yorke, she refused all comfort for a while, attending to her household tasks mechanically, but seeming as one whose mental faculties had received a numbing blow. By degrees, however, she rallied, and so far resumed her former nature as to resent a proposal made to her to go ‘down the country,’ as she expressed it, and settle in a quiet country town with her children.
‘Poor Cyrus said I was to stop and see how the claims washed up till the very end,’ she said, ‘and so I shall as long as they’re worth sticking to. I’ve followed the diggings so long as I should be lost at any other life; so I’ll stop on and do for you boys, just as I’ve always done, till the party’s broke up. There’s plenty of good hard work, and that’ll keep me from thinkin’ too much and maybe losin’ the little wits I have.’
So Mrs. Yorke abode with the party, knowing that she was among friends and brothers, and that her children were under the protection of the whole goldfield, every man in which would have gone far to aid them in any way. She gradually became her old cheery, sharp-spoken, energetic self again, and matters went on, as is the world’s wont, with a gradually decreasing memory of the big, easy, good-humoured husband and father whom she used to order about with almost as little ceremony as the children.
As soon as I had reason to believe that No. 4 could be trusted to manage itself without my supervision, I placed Joe Bulder in charge, and returned to the Oxley. There was no very great difficulty in arranging poor Cyrus Yorke’s affairs. He had, luckily for himself, taken a fancy to have his will made a couple of years before, being so much taken with the celerity with which Mr. Markham drew up that important document for a fellow miner in extremis, that he got that energetic gentleman to write out one exactly like it for him, leaving everything to his wife, as had his old friend, and actually signed it.
This was most fortunate, and saved all bother with the Curator of Intestate Estates and the necessity of commission to Mr. Bagstock—a result which that gentleman feelingly deplored. We had then only to place Mrs. Yorke’s share of the dividends in the bank to her credit after each washing-up, and the poor thing knew to a fraction how much was added to her previous very respectable capital.
After I had returned to the Oxley, and these affairs, revolutionary and otherwise, were done and over, and we had time to think over matters in a calm and unexcited way, it occurred to the Major and myself one night as very strange that Jack Bulder should have taken such very particular care to keep himself out of the whole imbroglio.
‘The very thing I should have expected him to have gone in tooth and nail for,’ said the Major. ‘He has often inveighed against the tyranny and harshness of the officials in the early days of mining, more particularly in Victoria, and occasionally shown an amount of ferocity that surprised me. Now, all through this row he has kept steadily to his work, avoided all meetings, almost ran the risk of being considered a traitor to a cause by some of the hot-headed rioters. Depend upon it he has a good reason for keeping so quiet.’
‘He has shown his sense,’ I said. ‘There were many good reasons for keeping out of all this unfortunate affair. I wish others had thought the same.’
‘Yes, but what I mean is, that he had some feeling beyond that of common prudence which would not have swayed such a savage beggar as he is when his blood is up. There is some mystery, I’ll swear.’
‘There is some mystery about every digger,’ I replied. ‘There is nothing wonderful about that. If one could only know the real history of nine-tenths of the people that we pass in the street or work alongside of for years, there would be the material for more startling romances than all the fiction-weavers in Europe could manufacture in a decade.’
‘When one comes to think of it, perhaps if the Oxley Hotel bars were turned into a veritable Palace of Truth instead of one occasionally witnessing the unveiling of a fragment of the statue, some novel effects and strong situations would result. But none the less do I firmly believe that our trusty acquaintance and mate carries about with him a secret as much more weighty and dangerous than the ordinary miner’s possessions as a square foot of nitro-glycerine is to a canister of powder.’
‘If your theory is right about his having a craving for drink, it will all come out the first time he has a “burst.” I have noticed his being restless and excited lately. It may be that the enemy is crawling closer to him.’
‘Poor devil! Perhaps it is so. I must say I pity those alcoholisers. It is so hopeless a case with them. And they are often such Bayards in their sane periods.’
‘Poor human nature again!’ said I; ‘but isn’t it bed-time?’
More important matters than John Bulder’s strange mood had been passed over during the revolutionary and funereal period. So little had I dreamed of aught but war rumours and tragedies of late, that the absence of my accustomed letter from my darling Ruth did not unsettle and alarm me, as such an omission usually did.
When I began to reason on the subject I told myself that there was no fixed period for the sending of these priceless missives, and that they were occasionally delayed until the time of my eager expectation had passed.
I had certainly written very fully of late, and had dwelt with more than my usual guarded prudence upon the recent successes and wonderful expectations which had now fallen to our lot.
I had told of my wound, of the robbery of the escort, and of my slow and tedious recovery—all of which facts had elicited the most tender sympathy, the most fervent condolence. I had mentioned, perhaps in somewhat slight and formal manner, the good nursing I had received from Mrs. Morsley, which had so much tended to my recovery. But I had forborne to state that she was identical with the Jane Mangold whom Ruth so well recollected at Dibblestowe Leys.
My reason for this was merely an instinctive feeling that it was better not to go into the whole question of poor Jane’s Australian career, and a doubt whether any one in England could completely understand and accurately gauge the nature of a goldfield’s friendship, all innocent of wrong-doing as such friendships generally are.
Better for all and safer would it have been had I told the whole unvarnished truth, and trusted to Ruth’s delicate sympathy and womanly sense of purity to have instinctively divined the real state of the case. As it was, my reticence gave point to the well-nigh fatal stab to my reputation, aided the deathblow to my happiness, which my mortal enemy had known so well how to deal.
I had tortured myself with the sickening foreboding of evil that sensitive spirits know so well for some weeks, when a letter came with the well-known beyond-sea postmark.
To my deep surprise it was in the squire’s handwriting.
With mingled feelings I tore it open and read, with confused brain and mist-dimmed eyes, as follows—