The Miner’s Right

Chapter XXXIX

Rolf Boldrewood

MRS. ALLERTON, like most elderly ladies who have led carefully-regulated existences in the ancestral mansions of an English county, was not blessed with much curiosity. She held that the inconveniences of travel more than counterbalanced its advantages, and, somewhat to our joint relief, made up her mind to stay where she was. In the lady of the house she found a most pleasant well-informed companion, ready to afford her every kind of information about Australia without going off the balcony. She feared naturally the altogether untried hazards of a coach journey, and distrusted a goldfield as something between a mining camp and a barricade. Thus she pleased herself and contented every one by giving us three full permission to conduct the journey on our own responsibility, and remaining in Macquarie Street till our return.

‘Now that dearest Ruth is so strong,’ she said to me, ‘and her father and you are in charge, I think every change must benefit her. As for me, I feel quite at home with Mrs. Pemberton. I never thought hot weather would agree with me so.’

So, partly by rail, partly by coach, we made the eventful journey, and much to my relief the latter part of the adventure was free from any of the contretemps which occasionally happen to the best regulated stage companies. The coaches were not unpleasantly crowded, nor where there any inebriated personages involuntarily obnoxious and impossible to quell except by the strong measure of leaving them behind.

We had scarcely reached the grand Alpine chain of mountains which divides the coast lands from the interior plateaux, ere the greater freshness and dryness of the atmosphere was sensibly felt by my companions. Ruth’s spirits seemed to rise with every change of scene, and the appearance of the country, the open park-like forest, the flocks which fed by the roadside, with such strange Arcadians in charge, the occasional droves of cattle with their attendant stock-riders, the packhorses, the swagman, pipe in mouth, stepping cheerily along the highway, all these characteristic scenes and sounds of a far land, were to her and to the Squire sources of unfailing surprise and interest.

‘How different all these people look from our labouring hinds and villagers generally,’ said Ruth. ‘Nobody looks poor, nobody looks depressed or dependent. You have no poor in Australia, have you, Hereward?’

‘We have plenty of people who haven’t any money,’ I say, ‘but one could hardly speak of them correctly as “the poor” in the collectively contemptuous way we used to do in England.’

‘That’s because it’s always warm here.’ (‘Is it though?’ interjected I.) ‘People can’t be really poor unless they have no fuel and very few clothes as well as hardly any food. Now look at that man making such a nice fire with dry wood in abundance. What is he doing that for? he can’t want to warm himself.’

‘He is going to boil a quart pot full of water to make himself some tea. He has probably some bread and meat in his pouch. Off these, with the tea, he will make a sufficient meal, after which he will walk ten, twelve, or fifteen miles as the case may be.’

‘Why don’t they drink beer?’ said the Squire. ‘Our washerwomen and ladies’ maids are the only people who drink tea in that way in England.’

‘Beer is neither so cheap, so portable, or so wholesome a drink in all weathers and seasons. Bread, meat, and tea carry the Australian labourer from one side of the continent to the other, not but what they drink beer and strong liquors, generally, with all too little unreserve when they can get them.’

‘And suppose our friend’s store runs out, and his money, what does he do then?’ asked the Squire.

‘Present himself at the first sheep or cattle station at the time of sunset, where he receives the dole of food and lodging for one night, almost as a matter of right.’

‘And can he do this for any length of time?’

‘Virtually, the time is unlimited—until he obtains work to his taste. If the employment or wages do not suit him he will walk hundreds of miles before taking service.’

‘So that, practically, the proprietors support a strike against themselves, by giving sustenance to labourers who perhaps have decided not to accept their rate of wages.’

‘It amounts to something of the sort. But, at the same time, it brings the labour to their doors, even at the outskirts of civilisation. In the main, any differences of opinion on these points between pastoral proprietors and their employees arrange themselves easily.’

‘And have you ever travelled in that way, Hereward?’ said my fair questioner, looking with the deepest interest, as the driver was walking his horses up a hill, at the wayfarer sitting down on a log and commencing his repast.

‘Dozens of times, between one diggings and another, when we were hard up—there was nothing else for it. You should hear some of the Major’s stories.’

‘Poor Hereward!’ said the girl, looking into my face with the deepest tenderness and commiseration. ‘How much you have undergone, and for my sake! We must try and make it up to him, shall we not, papa?’

‘You mustn’t think that sort of thing the worst part of our life,’ I said, ‘any man with moderate health and constitution may laugh at such hardships under a sky as blue as this. Anxiety, settled bad luck, sickness, debt, doubt of your ability to pay just demands, other misfortunes, these are the true evils of a miner’s life. And from these,’ I said, taking her delicate hand in mine, ‘we may now, without boasting, say that Hereward Pole is freed for ever.’

‘Quite so,’ said the Squire. ‘A young fellow just about to be married to a young woman, who has been waiting for him for half a dozen years, who has made a fair fortune by his own exertions, and has an old father-in-law who believes in him, has a very fair prospect before him, as things go in this world; so don’t let us have any more melancholy talk—do you hear, Ruth, darling. I feel like a schoolboy out for a holiday. I’m going to enjoy myself in every way, and talk all sorts of nonsense till we get back to Sydney. So don’t oppress me with moralising. Your mother and I will have time to do all that on the voyage home.’

I had written to the Major, and apprised him of my intended reappearance on the field thus accompanied, and asked him to arrange at the leading hotel for suitable rooms and accommodation. He was also to inform the Commissioner and Mr. Merlin, as well as Mrs. Mangrove, with other tried and trustworthy friends.

I did not wish to arrive at the Oxley entirely without notice. At the same time I knew that I could trust to the consideration of the mining population generally, as well as to that of former associates and acquaintances, that nothing that could wound the most fastidious delicacy would meet the eyes or ears of my companions.

In due time the Oxley, scene of so many toils and troubles, failures and life-wrecks, triumphs and successes, was reached in safety.

Strange, and yet curiously familiar, looked the characteristic features of a great goldfield. The winding streets, the net-work of shafts, the parti-coloured mullock heaps, the thronging miners, the toilers and camp-followers, earnestly energetic and yet so unlike any other class of labourers, the throbbing clanking engines which worked in such near proximity to many of the houses, the dull reverberating clash of the quartz-crushing batteries—all things long familiar, even to irksomeness in my own case, were viewed with the deepest astonishment by the Squire and his daughter.

‘What a wonderland! what a new world!’ said Ruth, ‘and what a perfect treasure-house of tone and colour. I quite envy you, the picturesque life you must have led here. My sketches will set me up for life when I get home. There never were such opportunities for “genre painting.”’

‘H—m!’ said I. ‘The vivid interest you display fades away in time, I can assure you. All the same, there are worse places than a goldfield.’

Old Hennessy, issuing from his well-ordered hostelry, received us with respectful attention, and promptly provided the most comfortable rooms. All traces of the journey effaced, the appearance of an appetising breakfast interested the Squire and myself temporarily more than the unwonted surroundings. He was specially complimentary as to the cutlets and broiled chicken, and beheld with unaffected surprise a magnificent cold round of beef, which occupied a secondary and strategical position.

‘You don’t live on pork and molasses, eh, Hereward, my boy, in these, ahem—diggings? I shall get quite Australian by and by. That corned round would be hard to beat in old England. Beautifully marbled, and just the right colour too, properly pink and not too much saltpetre. How that piece of beef would astonish an old butcher at the Leys. He never would believe that there was anything but kangaroo to eat in Australia.’

After breakfast appeared the Major, ‘showing great form,’ as he would have said himself, scrupulously turned out, and looking in every detail of appearance and manner the high-bred personage he undoubtedly was. With him, after a while, we sallied forth for a walk through this golden land, where fresh signs and wonders met Ruth’s eager gaze at every step. Everything excited her observant faculty. The thronging miners, the shops, the women and children—these last so sturdy and self-reliant—the great heaps of red and yellow earth, which she made no doubt were largely mingled with gold.

‘This is like a town in Hans Andersen’s Tales,’ she said. ‘How I should like to set him down in Main Street—isn’t that the name?—and make him describe it in his charming simple fashion. All would be gold-coloured, the bread, the butter, the beef and mutton, the picks and shovels, the hair of the women and the beards of the men. I do observe the lower garments of your fellow-diggers, Hereward, are decidedly auriferous looking. Talking of that, sir, why don’t they come up and greet you; they haven’t forgotten your expressive countenance, have they?’

‘It is a proof of the courtesy which characterises a mining population, as I have often told you. They know me well enough, but do not consider this to be an appropriate time for renewing acquaintance. They are chiefly in their working clothes for one thing, and acknowledging you and the Squire as distinguished visitors, they have the sense to defer their recognition of a comrade.’

‘Very remarkable set of people I must say,’ said the Squire. ‘I never saw so many grand-looking well-set-up fellows together out of a regiment of Horse Guards in my life. They don’t look much like our home mining or manufacturing population, I must say.’

‘No finer fellows does the world hold,’ I reply. ‘Moreover, the effect of travel has stamped itself plainly upon face and form. They have most of them enjoyed a liberal education in that sense.’

‘I thought there was something distinctive about them,’ said Ruth; ‘but now I demand to be taken to our claim, Greenstone or Bluestone, which is it? As I shall be a shareholder I ought to go and inspect the mine. Don’t you think so, Major Borlase?’

‘Most certainly, Miss Allerton. I know they are not prepared, but you will be able to see how gold is actually brought from the depths of the earth.’

‘I quite long, I assure you, to see Mrs. Yorke and the Bulder brothers, Jack and Joe,’ she continued. ‘How different they would have been if they had remained at the Leys. I saw one of their old comrades just before we left England, and he said—“Be you and Squire aiming to fare to Horsetrailier all the way, Miss Ruth?” I said, “Yes, William.” “Only for to think now; moind ye bain’t took by them kangaroos, Miss. They do tell I as they be main fierce in some parts.” Just fancy the different degrees of development between such a man as William Wicker and his travelled comrades.’

‘I have an idea, Ruth,’ said the Squire; ‘you must get up an entertainment, give a lecture on Australian goldfields, and so on, when we all get back. Talk of development, it must be in the air, my darling. Some folks are becoming positively alarming. Are your Australian young ladies so full of speculative theory, Major Borlase?’

‘We have them of all kinds,’ said the Major, ‘I believe, just as in England. But I’m hardly an authority. Hereward will tell you.’

‘He affects to decry your sex,’ I said mischievously. ‘You should consider yourself highly honoured, Ruth, by the Major’s attentions.’

Ruth glanced quickly at our comrade. The expression of his face was, as usual, utterly impenetrable. But her quick womanly intuition apparently read something in the melancholy eyes and haughty brow which did not lead her to prolong the badinage.

‘A man to love once and always,’ she said to herself. ‘He has been a victim to some cruel woman, and has distrusted us evermore. Poor fellow—why are the best men so often singled out for ruin?’

Then the Major’s deep tones were heard.

‘I used to think I had reasons to urge for my scepticism. But Miss Allerton bids fair to shake my most cherished unbeliefs. Be content with your own happiness, Pole, and don’t add point to the misfortunes of your less enviable fellow-creatures.’

The shaft of Greenstone Dyke and all its surroundings were much as I had left them. The claim, though fallen off from its original splendour, and no longer sending up dirt to the tune of eight and ten ounces to the load, was still sufficiently rich to be regularly worked. The Major himself had not felt called upon to continue his manual labour. He supervised the management only. Jack and Joe Bulder still preferred to work their shift as usual—the latter for want of knowing what else to do with himself if he were suddenly to discontinue the occupation of years, and the former justly apprehensive that evil might result to him, in case he gave that opportunity to the Adversary which idle hands are popularly held to furnish. Wherefore, Ruth enjoyed the opportunity she had so much wished for, of seeing her old acquaintances of the Leys.

John Bulder had finished his shift and arrayed himself in a quiet, rather well-cut tweed suit and round hat, much like that worn by the Major and myself before our arrival.

When he therefore took off his hat, and bowed with a certain ease and quiet air of politeness to Ruth and the Squire, they looked wonderingly, as if they had never seen him before. Then Ruth walked forward, followed by the Squire; both shook him warmly by the hand.

‘I never should have known you, Jack,’ said she. ‘Why, whatever have you done to yourself? Now I can recognise your face again. Do you remember picking me up once when I fell off my pony and the nurse was so frightened? Oh, how curious it is to see our old friends so changed and, if I may say it, improved.’

‘Thank you very much, Miss Allerton,’ said Jack, with much composure, but, at the same time, with great respect. ‘I’ve led a roving—rather a wild life since I left the Leys, and I daresay I am a good deal changed. It’s a miracle, though, to see you and the Squire here, looking so well, too.’

Joe was even then coming up the shaft, and so arrested the colloquy.

This proceeding Ruth watched with the greatest interest, being much astonished to see how steadily and cleverly our famed whip-horse, Roan Bessie, effected the process. Joe, too suddenly shooting into upper air and seeing Miss Ruth and ‘t’owd Squire,’ as he would formerly have called them, standing near the mouth of the shaft, was much more astonished, and gasped for breath, looking from one to another, as they both warmly greeted him, as if they had been denizens of another world.

‘You see, Joe, I have come all the way from the Leys to look at the claim and the party,’ said Ruth. ‘You and Jack have been good friends and true mates to Mr. Pole all through. He and I will always be grateful to you for it—depend upon that, Joe.’

Joe was altogether too much overcome to say much. He stammered out something about Mr. Hereward having brought him across the sea, and that he’d promised to stand by him like an Englishman, and that he had done so, he hoped. His service to Miss Ruth and the Squire, and he was glad to see them looking so well.

‘You look very well, too, Joe,’ said the Squire, putting his hand kindly on the broad Saxon shoulders, ‘a good deal browner and not quite so full of flesh as you used to be at the Leys, but in first-rate condition and as hard as nails, I’ll be bound. Well, you’ve worked to some purpose I’m told, that’s a comfort. I suppose we shall see you back again some day?’

‘May be,’ said Joe, rather doubtfully, ‘when the claim’s worked out. But that won’t be this year, Squire. There’s no use in leaving good gold behind us, and Mr. Hereward here’ll want all we can send him in the old country, I reckon.’

‘I suppose that’s what you call being “dividing mates,” Joe,’ said Ruth with a smile which completely overpowered the honest fellow, who gazed at her as if she had been the tutelary divinity of all miners and such as dive into the bowels of the earth for a living.

As for Mrs. Yorke, she completely won that matron’s heart by walking down to her cottage after lunch and spending a couple of hours quietly with her, during which time Mrs. Yorke related to her most of the events which had occurred at the Oxley and Yatala for the last five years, with annotations of her own, winding up with the accident to poor Cyrus which had made her a widow, and tearfully drawing attention to the infant Cyrus, whose plump features wore much the same grave uncompromising expression which had characterised his late father.

Apparently Ruth found special favour in Mrs. Yorke’s sight, for she subsequently informed me that nothing but actual eye-sight could have made her believe that such a young lady existed in the whole world, let alone in England, ‘which the people as comes from there is mostly stuck-up till they get their experience,’ and that if I had waited for her till I was gray it would have been nothing but reasonable.

Mrs. Mangrove also fell a victim at the first assault. We went there together, and John was brought in to see the young lady from England that he had often heard his wife rally me about. That worthy second lieutenant found his custom of leaving all the talking to his superior officer very convenient on this occasion, only he mechanically began to fill his pipe, and being warned by a portentous frown put it back into his pouch and stared helplessly around.

His wife received Ruth’s thanks for the help which she had extended to me in time of need with much good feeling mingled with dignity, and would have it that she had done nothing out of the way, only in the way of business, and such as any other storekeeper would have readily furnished.

‘The fact was, Miss,’ said she, bending her keen gray eyes upon the soft countenance of her visitor, ‘that Harry here (Mr. Pole, I mean) and the Major, and Joe, and Cyrus, they was such a straight-goin’ honest crowd, as no one could help backin’ them. Storekeepers you know, Miss, has to keep their eyes open. They know a man when they see him, bless your heart, and can tell a good sort from a loafer or a rowdy, you believe me. Many a time I’ve seen Harry here come in for his letters, when they were getting nothing, looking as if he hadn’t had a good meal for a week. I never could help getting ready something for him. And if he got a letter of yours, Miss (for of course I always knew the home postmark), he’d look as if it was meat, and drink, and gold, and everything to him for a month afterwards.’

Here the tears came into Ruth’s eyes, the harrowing picture of my probably emaciated condition proving too much for her.

‘Come, Mrs. Mangrove,’ I said, ‘things were never quite so bad. I must appeal to the Major. You took care that we didn’t get so low, I’m sure, and Mrs. Yorke, too. Don’t you remember those beef-steaks and the bottle of grog?’

‘Well, what of that? You were both fools enough to have laid down and died rather than run up a bill, and nothing coming in and no show going. Bless your heart, Miss, we had to force it on ’em, hadn’t we, John? We knew their luck would turn, didn’t we, John?’

‘Truest word you ever spoke,’ said John, surreptitiously filling his pipe, and keeping a match in readiness for Ruth’s departure.

‘And now we’ve all seen you, Miss,’ said Mrs. Mangrove, falling back on a sense of power derived from a long course of important and complicated business transactions, ‘I can tell you this, that when you go away there’ll be only one opinion on the whole field—that Harry has dropped upon a bit of luck that’s worth No. 4 and Greenstone Dyke twice over.’

‘Couldn’t ha’ laid it out neater, not from the Bench,’ affirmed John, striking a lucifer match in the enthusiasm of the moment and blowing it out again.

‘Do you know I shall be quite spoiled if I stay here much longer,’ said Ruth, laughing, and shaking hands warmly with the worthy pair; ‘but I shall know how to think of Hereward’s good true friends when we are far away. That’s the reason I was so anxious to come to the goldfields.’

‘They’ll all remember you, no fear,’ said Mrs. Mangrove; ‘won’t they, John.’

John all but dislocated my wrist in token of full approval and private personal leave-taking, merely committing himself to a guttural sound which might have been an echo of his helpmate’s concluding words.

He winked at me solemnly as the door closed, and an expression of ineffable satisfaction overspread his features, while the subtle aroma which simultaneously pervaded the atmosphere announced that the unnatural separation between man and pipe had terminated.

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