IT IS unnecessary to accompany the little party along the somewhat tedious and decidedly muddy road which led the adventurers of the day to the spot ‘where the root of all evil grew wild up the country.’ O dear old friend, who used to quote this, and make merry over Governor Tarbox, where art thou now? They saw the Royal Mail dash by, drawn by six horses in an American coach, the leatherbrace springs of which, and the plank road, were a constant wonder to Jack and Mrs. Polwarth. Now trotted along a dozen well mounted police troopers, their boots and steel scabbards shining in the sun, conveying 50,000 ounces of gold in a four-horse drag. Anon, a drove of staring, long-horned fat cattle, engineered by a dog of high educational attainments, a black boy, and a couple of bearded, wild-looking stock-riders. Then, again, the bullock team of the period—fourteen bullocks drawing a laden canvas-covered waggon, with a tall Australian driver, the whip of him at times raising hair, at times volleying like musketry—was another unequivocal surprise. A flock of 2000 fat sheep, a drove of unbroken horses, a train of a dozen pack-mules, all these were fascinating novelties and wild surprises to the newly-arrived Britishers.
A few days, however, sufficed to inure the little party to the toils and difficulties of the journey, such as they were, and to teach them to make light of them. The road—as before stated—nearly a mile wide in places, and marked in black mud on the green turf, was visible to the naked eye night or day. Mrs. Polwarth learned to fry chops and steaks and make cakes as if she had been to the manner born, while the men pitched their tents and made their nightly camp as if they had done nothing else all their lives. Tottie, even, used to run about and pick great bunches of yellow flowers, which were so like buttercups, together with daisies and fringed violets, and was the merriest of the party.
‘This is going gipsying with a vengeance,’ said Lance one day. ‘I never expected to find myself driving a cart and hobbling out an old horse, like a tinker on a common; but as it’s the regular thing to do, and as this Tom Tidler’s ground can’t be so very far oft now, I suppose one mustn’t grumble.’
‘It’s main cheap travelling,’ Jack would reply to these occasional repinings. ‘It don’t cost much, that’s one thing, and the weather seems like taking up, so the little one can play about same as if she was at home.’
Ballarat—at length! The far-famed!—the wonder-town!—the capital of the kingdom of gold! A confused array of huts, tents, weather-board houses, and stores huddled together, as if rained down from the sky, on the side of a hill partly covered with the iron-stemmed, sombre Eucalyptus. A brook, with yellow waters hurrying down between green and grassy banks. Crowds of silent, preoccupied looking men anxiously engaged in what, to the new-comers, seemed mysterious mining operations. Some were standing mid-leg deep in the creek, protected by thigh boots, rocking curious wooden cases, which looked like children’s cradles, and which they afterwards found were called by that name. Policemen and mounted troopers went to and fro among them, or issued from an encampment higher on the hill—which was evidently the headquarters of the executive department. Mud-stained, bearded, and roughly dressed were the greater part of the population; Lance thought he had never seen so many ruffianly-looking fellows before. A marsh, filled with waving reeds, lay on a plateau a short distance to the westward of the field. The green banks looked pleasant to the eye, shaded, as they were, by wide-spreading trees—thicker of foliage than the others.
‘If you think well, sir, we might just as well pitch our camp here,’ said Jack. ‘It’s away from the crowd like, and I’ll manage to make it snug and home-like in a week or two. We can leave the Missis here while you and I look out for a claim, as they call it.’
So they made their temporary home by the side of Lake Wendouree. as it came afterwards to be called, little dreaming that the day would come when the marsh would be dammed and deepened, when steamers would ply upon its surface, and boat races and regattas take place thereon, with a thousand schoolchildren holding high festival on its banks.
However, these developments were in the future. Nothing was to be seen now but the waving reeds, the green grass, and a great black log lying on the ground, by the side of which they pitched the tent, as being a species of shelter and handy for purposes of cookery. Then the men wandered through the diggings, talking to the miners, as opportunity offered, and trying to learn something about the recognised method of making a commencement to dig gold.
Chance favoured them the day after they arrived, by the occurrence of a dramatic incident, instructive in its way, as it turned out.
They were walking along the side of the creek, looking at a curiously-silent toiling crowd of 20,000 men, who, working in very small and shallow claims, 16 feet square, on the celebrated ‘Jewellers’ Point,’ were turning up gold in handfuls, panfuls, and, in some instances, nearly bucketfuls.
Suddenly every man raised his head and shouted ‘Joe.’ Jack and Lance thought the whole crowd had gone mad, as they hasted to join in the chorus. They noticed, however, a dozen or more individuals leave their work and depart unobtrusively. A moment after, a man came running desperately down a gully which led to the creek, hotly pursued by two troopers. He wormed his way among the holes, where the horsemen could not well follow him, and seemed in a fair way of escaping, when he ran nearly into the arms of a constable on foot, whom, coming from another direction, he had not seen. This official, a wily and active person, promptly secured him. He was then handcuffed and led off to the camp, where, to the great astonishment of the Englishmen, who followed to see the end of the affair, he was chained to a log by the leg; evidently a desperate criminal, they decided.
Lance interrogated one of the troopers who remained by the prisoner. ‘I suppose he’s a hardened offender. Is it for murder or robbery? or only horse-stealing?’
The trooper laughed. ‘Well, he ain’t what you might call a desprit bad ’un, though he’s broke the law. He’s been diggin’ without a license.’
‘Well, you’ll soon find out, young man. If you don’t get one, you’ll get tethered like this chap here. It’s a permit to dig gold, and you have to pay thirty bob a month to the Crown. You didn’t think you were going to be let dig up a fortune on Crown land for nothing, did you? ‘
‘Oh, I understand. Well, where can we get one? ‘
‘D’ye see that big outside tent at the camp? Well, that’s the Mining Registrar’s. He’ll give you one apiece, if you’ve got the cash, and then you can dig gold by the hundredweight, if so be as you can find it.’
‘All right. Can I have a word with the prisoner?’
‘Oh yes; while I’m here.’
Lance went up to the manacled one and accosted him. ‘What’s your name, my man? ‘
‘I’m not “my man,” or your man or any one else’s. Though I’m not a free man, certainly, if it comes to that. Isn’t it an infernal shame that a free-born Englishman should be chained up like a dog because he hasn’t thirty shillings in his pocket?’
‘It doesn’t seem right,’ said Lance. ‘The money’s not much, but, of course, a man may be out of luck and not have it. The reason I asked you your name was that I was just going to the Registrar to get a couple of licenses for my mate and myself, and I could get you one at the same time.’
‘Didn’t I tell you I had no money?’said the man, rather savagely.
‘What does it matter about such a trifle? Of course, I will pay for you, and you can give it to me when convenient.’
‘Thanks, very much,’ said the stranger, with a softened voice and an accent which spoke of different surroundings. ‘My name is Hastings. Edward Charles are my Christian names. You must make allowance for my being out of temper. This sort of thing is enough to gall any man, and there will be trouble out of it yet.’
‘Now,’ said Lance to the trooper, ‘if I get a license, as you call it, for our friend here, will you let him go? ‘
‘By rights,’ said the trooper, who had a good-natured face, ‘he ought to be brought up to-morrow before the Commissioner for not producing his license when called upon so to do by any authorised person. But they’re all away, and I can square it—say he had got one that day, or something.’
‘That will do,’ said Lance, with a smile, as he handed the man a half-sovereign. ‘I’ll soon have his paper and my own. I can’t leave a man—a gentleman, too—like this. That’s the tent, isn’t it? ‘
‘He’s a gentleman, that chap,’ said the trooper to himself. ‘Any one can see that; just out from home, too. But he’s too soft. His money won’t last long if he goes and pays up for every chap here that hasn’t got a license.’
As it turned out, it was money well invested.
Trevanion went to the tent, where he found a busy gentleman sitting before a table covered with notes and gold and silver, official papers and books, etc., all in rather a state of confusion. He cut short his explanation by asking ‘What names?’ in a gruff voice.
These being supplied, he filled up three forms printed on parchment, which he cut out of a long narrow book like a cheque book, and, holding them in his hand, said, ‘Four pounds ten you have to pay.’
Lance handed over five sovereigns and received ten shillings change. He then glanced at the licenses, consecutively numbered and dated, which gave permission to John Polwarth, Launcelot Trevanion, and Edward Charles Hastings ‘to dig and search for gold upon Her Majesty’s Crown lands in the colony of Victoria for the space of one month from date.’ These documents had been signed in blank—‘EVELYN P. S. STURT, Commissioner.’