‘Turning from such agreeable reflections, we regret deeply to have to allude to a presentment of the darker side of goldfield life, to verify the rumours of a tragedy enacted in our midst on the very day when far different scenes were witnessed at the Oxley.
‘Our readers have been made aware from a perusal of our exhaustive mining reports of the daily improving character of the reefing industry at Mason’s, and of the unprecedented rates to which certain scrip has lately reached.’
Such was then the nature of the summons by which Mr. Merlin had been reft so suddenly from the festal scene, and from the prospect of a soigné last dinner at Hennessy’s, to which we had invited him, in company with the Major, Mr. Bagstock, Blake, and Olivera.
I was just in time to secure the copy in the breakfast-room, and to give Hennessy a hint to suppress that and any following issue, as far as our apartments were concerned.
What had happened was only hinted at, no further particulars being then obtainable, but on Merlin’s return late at night (he had been officially present at the coroner’s inquest) the ghastly details were brought out in the smoking room.
It would appear that the Great Columbia and Undaunted Quartz Reefing and Pyrites Reduction Company (Limited) had been paying so surprisingly well of late that the management, among whom Mr. Jake Challerson was a leading director, owning, indeed, one-eighth of the whole immensely rich claim, determined to give a lunch in entertainment of the metropolitan shareholders. Special coaches had been put on and the supposititious birthday of the Sovereign had been a gala day in every sense at Mason’s.
Strangers, much wondering, clad in unwonted raiment, escorting prepossessing personages of the gentler sex, thronged the chief and only street of Mason’s. Simple questions were asked as to familiar goldfields’ sights, and pretty expressions of wonder and delight issued from cherry lips. Facile princeps among the perhaps unconventional magnates of the directory, the illustrious Jake Challerson, unapproachably apparelled, redolent of fabulous wealth, was regarded with fluttering interest by the ladies, with ill-concealed awe by the younger members of the party.
Flags were flying along the narrow thoroughfare which, macadamised with glittering white quartz, and bordered by acres of plate-glass windows, looked like a street scene in an opera. Those miners whose labour was not actually necessary in the working had leave given, or had given themselves leave, as the case might be, to make holiday. The guests were hilarious and jubilant when not awe-stricken at the statistics blandly poured forth from the well-practised lips of their hosts. The entertainers were flowingly gracious and generous, as only gatherers of gold au naturel ever are. Many a quaint fragment, or matrix-encircled nugget, the weight of which astonished the fair recipient, was transferred ‘without registration’ during a visit to the strong-room on that auspicious day.
Mr. Challerson, tall, languid, romantic-looking, posed as the Comte de Monte Christo, and gave on all sides with the thoughtful yet unqualified profusion of that illustrious revenant.
The guests enjoyed a full survey and fuller explanation of the great steam-driven quartz-crushing machine, with its celebrated battery, where scores of steel-shod stampers fell ceaselessly with regular irregularity upon heaps of pale stone throughout the long long summer day, the star-stream silent night. They shuddered as the ground, the whole strong edifice, seemed to quiver with earthquake tremour beneath the tremendous thuds of the tireless Briareus. They saw, when the streaming water carried off in solution the sand to which the matrix had been reduced, the thin lines of gold which the water was powerless to move, awaiting the hour of cleaning-up. They saw the very spot where the Chinaman fell last year, shot in the act of robbing the sluice boxes by night. Having undergone as much wonder, excitement, instruction, and intimidation as could be borne without refreshment, it was no wonder that the summons to lunch was hailed with deepest approval.
Lunch was served in one of the engine-sheds, which was brilliantly draped for the occasion, and ornamented out of its work-a-day appearance. Champagne flowed; the service was costly; the rarest fruits and flowers, specially forwarded by express, graced the board, which groaned under dainties and delicacies uncatalogued.
Mr. Jake Challerson was the life and soul of the whole party After the refection was over, the ‘cage’ was brought into requisition and the whole party, prepared for fresh adventures, arrived safely at the lower level, and walked along the great main drive which, lighted up with coloured lamps for the occasion, presented somewhat the appearance of Aladdin’s Cave.
The miners stood respectfully at the angles of the cross-cut drives, and listened with pleased astonishment to the soft voices and rippling laughter which aroused the unaccustomed echoes.
At length the cage began to make periodical upward ascent. By degrees the whole joyous party, assisted in safely bestowing themselves by Mr. Challerson, who chivalrously remained below till the last moment, regained the upper air.
Here Mr. Merlin, from whom the above sketch of proceedings had been elicited by incessant questioning, declined further interrogation. Handing in the depositions which he had brought back with him, he desired us to read for ourselves. I was chosen lector, and amid a silence which showed how deep was the interest, read as follows—
‘This deponent, Hans Bunsen, on his oath states: “I am one of the wages men in the Columbia and Undaunted Company’s workings. I remember the day of the picnic and lunch. A large party came to see the workings; they were lowered down the shaft in the cage, both ladies and gentlemen. I saw the deceased, Mr. Jake Challerson, there. I knew him as one of the principal shareholders in the Company. He was at Ballarat when I was there in 1851. He used to be called Yankee Jake. I do not know if he was an American. He had been in America I believe. He talked like one. I also knew deceased, Old Man Dick, as we called him; he had been working for the last two years for the Company; he was a very silent man. We used to think him a little touched—not quite right in his head. He was a good man to work. I have heard that he was married, and that his wife had run away from him; did not know of my own knowledge or care, certainly not—what was it to me? Every man’s business is his own affair. There was a shot going to be put in just at the bottom of the shaft; we wanted to take down a bench there. The drill had been put in, and Old Man Dick was waiting with the fuse until the party should go up. Jack Martin and I, with two more men, were waiting in the second cross-cut till the blast went off. Old Man Dick was in the bottom of the shaft, and helped to send up the ladies and gentlemen. Mr. Challerson was the last. He said, ‘It’s my turn now.’ He was just putting his foot into the cage when Old Man Dick pulled him down. I heard him say ‘No, you don’t. We’ll go together directly. Yankee Jake, your hour has come.’ ‘Who are you?’ says Mr. Challerson. ‘You old madman, how dare you? let me go this instant. Help, murder!’ ‘Blast you,’ says Dick, not loud, but very deadly like, ‘don’t you know Richard Dunstan, whose wife you stole? Where is she now. Chained up and whipped, may be, in a madhouse! I’m a miserable half-mad wretch, and you’re a fine gentleman, Jake Challerson; oh yes, with money and white shirts and diamond rings and a gold watch and friends, ha! ha! You left me in hell—when you stole Dolores; now I’m going there for good—and so are you. Then we saw them struggle—very hard Mr. Challerson fought, till Dick picked up a drill and struck him over the head with it. He fell upon his knees; then Dick gave the signal and the cage was drawn up empty.”
‘By the Coroner: “Why did not you and the other men rush in and interfere?”
‘“We were going to do so, of course, but at the first start we saw Dick had a lighted candle always close by him, and the keg of powder open with which he had been filling the drill hole.”
‘The Coroner: “What happened then?”
‘“We saw him drag Mr. Challerson close up to the keg; he then took the candle in his hand. We ran for our lives along the drive, and the next minute there was an explosion like a thunderbolt, and we knew what had happened. The whole place was filled with smoke, and stones and gravel sent along the drive like shot. After a bit we went to the bottom of the shaft. There we found two bodies. The roof of Mr. Challerson’s head was gone, one of his arms was blown right off. Dick was lying on his face stone dead but not torn about. He looked as if he had been smothered. We signalled for the cage, and with assistance sent both the bodies up.”
‘John Martin, also sworn, corroborated the evidence of the last witness. “Had been only a short time on the claim. Knew Old Man Dick as a mate. Appeared to him to have something on his mind. Could not be a better working man. Told him (witness) one day that his wife had left him years ago, and that he had never done any good since. Believed, from what he had heard, that the woman known as Dolores Lusada was the wife of the deceased, Richard Dunstan.”
‘Egerton Wilson, being sworn, states: “I am the teacher of the school established at Mason’s, and have been resident there since the reefs opened. I knew the deceased director at Ballarat, New Zealand, and in England. His name was not Challerson, nor was he an American, though he had lived in several States and been in California. For reasons of his own, he assumed the American accent and professed to be a native of that country. He was the youngest son of the Earl of Venhamsley. I knew him as a boy, later on, when he was in the army. He was compelled to sell out on account of a dispute at cards. He left England immediately afterwards, and was some years in America. He came over from California to the Turon, where I first met him. He left afterwards for Ballarat. When I met him in New Zealand, a woman named Dolores was living with him as his wife. She went by the name of Mrs. Challerson. Have since heard that she left him, and is now in a lunatic asylum. Decline to state whether deceased was connected with the Ballarat riots, or whether I was implicated in the affair myself. We were both residents in Ballarat at the time.’”
John Bulder, it seems, had also to be called upon to give evidence, his name having been mentioned by the miner known as Old Man Dick to his comrades in the claim as an old friend and acquaintance. He went to Mason’s without mentioning his errand; we were only aware of the fact upon reading his sworn testimony. It was as follows: ‘I recognise both the deceased men before this inquest. I knew the deceased, Richard Dunstan, many years since, though I have not seen him since he left Victoria. He, I, and the other deceased, known as Jake Challerson, but whose real name and title was the Honourable Charles Dormer, he being a younger son of Lord Venhamsley, worked together as mates at Ballarat in the year 1852. The fourth man was a Swede, named Dirk Olafsen. Richard Dunstan’s wife, to whom he had lately been married, cooked for the party. Some months afterwards, when the Forest Creek Rush was at its height, deceased Challerson and Dunstan’s wife eloped, and it was said lived there together. Dunstan’s reason became unsettled through grief. He was placed in the lunatic asylum at Yarra Bend, where he remained for several years. I have seen Dunstan’s wife at the Oxley since I have been on the field. She was then known as Dolores Lusada, which was her name before she was married.’
By the Coroner—“Richard Dunstan was an honest hardworking man, whom every one respected. He was always most kind in his behaviour to his wife. As to my opinion of the character of Challerson or Dormer, I knew him to be one of the most infernal scoundrels that ever walked the earth. Am aware that I am speaking of the dead. He ought to have been dead long ago. Decline to say whether Challerson was connected with the Eureka Stockade revolt; if so, it is a pity he was not shot when better men met their fate. Decline to state whether I took part in the rising myself. Am not aware that it concerns the facts of this inquest. Have no intention of being disrespectful.’”
John Bulder’s was the last testimony, and, with Bunsen’s, placed the motive of the deed in a light so clear and distinct that no further elucidation was needed.
It was a sad termination to the gay party, which, full of pleasant anticipation and ephemeral joyousness, had touched the glaring streets of Mason’s with such unwonted brightness of colouring. The glamour of wealth, the false splendour shed by prosperity, however acquired, had dismally disappeared. The guests had fled in panic-stricken rush. The miners, save those needed as jurymen and witnesses at the inquest, had returned doggedly to their work. Two shattered corpses lay in the great engine shed, still incongruously gay with gaudy flags, which flapped all forgotten and unheeded. And still the quartz-crushing machine, with its ruthless ceaseless stampers, went thundering on from mid-day to midnight, unchecked, unslackened, still keeping up the same hungry sullen roar, as of a troop of lions.
The verdict of the jury, when divested of the legal phraseology with which it is considered still necessary to clothe such decisions, was to the effect—‘That the deceased Jake Challerson, otherwise Charles Dormer, and the deceased Richard Dunstan, had come to their deaths from injuries received consequent on the explosion of a cask of gunpowder, ignited by the said Richard Dunstan while in a state of temporary insanity.’
Such was the verdict of the jury, which no after legal action disturbed, but the stern sure verdict of the public at large, many of whom had known the slayer and the slain in years gone by, was that the prosperous criminal, the traitor, the betrayer, the false witness, and the shedder of innocent blood, had deservedly perished in the hour of his triumph by the hand of the most deeply wronged of his many victims.
‘It is rarely,’ commented the Beacon, ‘that the painful duty is cast upon us of recording such awe-striking occurrences. The affair has naturally created a widely-spread sensation throughout the district, both the actors in the tragedy being well known among the mining community, although the more prosperous performer, he who had been so suddenly called upon to meet his fate, was of late more prominently before the public. As for the slayer, who assumed the terrible responsibility of compelling his own and his enemy’s appearance before the bar of Heaven, let us assume that long brooding over his wrongs had deranged his mental powers, and that for the deed which hurried two unwarned human beings, with all their imperfections on their heads, into eternity, he was but indirectly responsible.’
These reflections and allusions only appeared on the day of our departure from the Oxley, and I had in the confusion of leaving no great difficulty in keeping them from Ruth’s knowledge, not wishing to shock her unnecessarily, or to mingle her pleasant experiences of the goldfield with such darksome shadows. The locality being a few miles distant from our town favoured my efforts at concealment; nor was it until some months afterwards that Ruth learned why Mr. Merlin, John Bulder, and other acquaintances had been compelled to visit Mason’s on the day after Mr. Bright’s festa.
I arranged, on this occasion, with the obliging and ubiquitous firm of Cobb and Co. to have a special coach put on for our party, of course for a consideration, but one which I cheerfully paid for the very great additional comfort. Our party was to be augmented by the Major, who had at my solicitation consented to take a short holiday in the metropolis and leave the care of the claim temporarily to our trusty partners.