Henry Handel Richardson
In a shaft on the Gravel Pits, a man had been buried alive. At work in a deep wet hole, he had recklessly omitted to slab the walls of a drive; uprights and tailors yielded under the lateral pressure, and the rotten earth collapsed, bringing down the roof in its train. The digger fell forward on his face, his ribs jammed across his pick, his arms pinned to his sides, nose and mouth pressed into the sticky mud as into a mask; and over his defenceless body, with a roar that burst his ear-drums, broke stupendous masses of earth.
His mates at the windlass went staggering back from the belch of violently discharged air: it tore the wind-sail to strips, sent stones and gravel flying, loosened planks and props. Their shouts drawing no response, the younger and nimbler of the two—he was a mere boy, for all his amazing growth of beard—put his foot in the bucket and went down on the rope, kicking off the sides of the shaft with his free foot. A group of diggers, gathering round the pit-head, waited for the tug at the rope. It was quick in coming; and the lad was hauled to the surface. No hope: both drives had fallen in; the bottom of the shaft was blocked. The crowd melted with a "Poor Bill—God rest his soul!" or with a silent shrug. Such accidents were not infrequent; each man might thank his stars it was not he who lay cooling down below. And so, since no more washdirt would be raised from this hole, the party that worked it made off for the nearest grog-shop, to wet their throats to the memory of the dead, and to discuss future plans.
All but one: a lean and haggard-looking man of some five and forty, who was known to his comrades as Long Jim. On hearing his mate's report he had sunk heavily down on a log, and there he sat, a pannikin of raw spirit in his hand, the tears coursing ruts down cheeks scabby with yellow mud, his eyes glassy as marbles with those that had still to fall.
He wept, not for the dead man, but for himself. This accident was the last link in a chain of ill-luck that had been forging ever since he first followed the diggings. He only needed to put his hand to a thing, and luck deserted it. In all the sinkings he had been connected with, he had not once caught his pick in a nugget or got the run of the gutter; the "bottoms" had always proved barren, drives been exhausted without his raising the colour. At the present claim he and his mates had toiled for months, overcoming one difficulty after another. The slabbing, for instance, had cost them infinite trouble; it was roughly done, too, and, even after the pins were in, great flakes of earth would come tumbling down from between the joints, on one occasion nearly knocking silly the man who was below. Then, before they had slabbed a depth of three times nine, they had got into water, and in this they worked for the next sixty feet. They were barely rid of it, when the two adjoining claims were abandoned, and in came the flood again—this time they had to fly for their lives before it, so rapid was its rise. Not the strongest man could stand in this ice-cold water for more than three days on end—the bark slabs stank in it, too, like the skins in a tanner's yard—and they had been forced to quit work till it subsided. He and another man had gone to the hills, to hew trees for more slabs; the rest to the grog-shop. From there, when it was feasible to make a fresh start, they had to be dragged, some blind drunk, the rest blind stupid from their booze. That had been the hardest job of any: keeping the party together. They had only been eight in all—a hand-to-mouth number for a deep wet hole. Then, one had died of dysentery, contracted from working constantly in water up to his middle; another had been nabbed in a manhunt and clapped into the "logs." And finally, but a day or two back, the three men who completed the nightshift had deserted for a new "rush" to the Avoca. Now, his pal had gone, too. There was nothing left for him, Long Jim, to do, but to take his dish and turn fossicker; or even to aim no higher than washing over the tailings rejected by the fossicker.
At the thought his tears flowed anew. He cursed the day on which he had first set foot on Ballarat.
"It's 'ell for white men—'ell, that's what it is!"
"'Ere, 'ave another drink, matey, and fergit yer bloody troubles."
His re-filled pannikin drained, he grew warmer round the heart; and sang the praises of his former life. He had been a lamplighter in the old country, and for many years had known no more arduous task than that of tramping round certain streets three times daily, ladder on shoulder, bitch at heel, to attend the little flames that helped to dispel the London dark. And he might have jogged on at this up to three score years and ten, had he never lent an ear to the tales that were being told of a wonderful country, where, for the mere act of stooping, and with your naked hand, you could pick up a fortune from the ground. Might the rogues who had spread these lies be damned to all eternity! Then, he had swallowed them only too willingly; and, leaving the old woman wringing her hands, had taken every farthing of his savings and set sail for Australia. That was close on three years ago. For all he knew, his wife might be dead and buried by this time; or sitting in the almshouse. She could not write, and only in the early days had an occasional newspaper reached him, on which, alongside the Queen's head, she had put the mark they had agreed on, to show that she was still alive. He would probably never see her again, but would end his days where he was. Well, they wouldn't be many; this was not a place that made old bones. And, as he sat, worked on by grief and liquor, he was seized by a desperate homesickness for the old country. Why had he ever been fool enough to leave it? He shut his eyes, and all the well-known sights and sounds of the familiar streets came back to him. He saw himself on his rounds of a winter's afternoon, when each lamp had a halo in the foggy air; heard the pit-pat of his four-footer behind him, the bump of the ladder against the prong of the lamp-post. His friend the policeman's glazed stovepipe shone out at the corner; from the distance came the tinkle of the muffin-man's bell, the cries of the buy-a-brooms. He remembered the glowing charcoal in the stoves of the chestnut and potato sellers; the appetising smell of the cooked-fish shops; the fragrant steam of the hot, dark coffee at the twopenny stall, when he had turned shivering out of bed; he sighed for the lights and jollity of the "Hare and Hounds" on a Saturday night. He would never see anything of the kind again. No; here, under bare blue skies, out of which the sun frizzled you alive; here, where it couldn't rain without at once being a flood; where the very winds blew contrarily, hot from the north and bitter-chill from the south; where, no matter how great the heat by day, the night would as likely as not be nipping cold: here he was doomed to end his life, and to end it, for all the yellow sunshine, more hopelessly knotted and gnarled with rheumatism than if, dawn after dawn, he had gone out in a cutting north-easter, or groped his way through the grey fog-mists sent up by grey Thames.
Thus he sat and brooded, all the hatred of the unwilling exile for the land that gives him house-room burning in his breast.
Who the man was, who now lay deep in a grave that fitted him as a glove fits the hand, careless of the pass to which he had brought his mate; who this really was, Long Jim knew no more than the rest. Young Bill had never spoken out. They had chummed together on the seventy-odd-mile tramp from Melbourne; had boiled a common billy and slept side by side in rain-soaked blankets, under the scanty hair of a she-oak. That was in the days of the first great stampede to the goldfields, when the embryo seaports were as empty as though they were plague-ridden, and every man who had the use of his legs was on the wide bush-track, bound for the north. It was better to be two than one in this medley of bullock-teams, lorries, carts and pack-horses, of dog-teams, wheelbarrows and swagmen, where the air rang with oaths, shouts and hammering hoofs, with whip-cracking and bullock-prodding; in this hurly-burly of thieves, bushrangers and foreigners, of drunken convicts and deserting sailors, of slit-eyed Chinese and apt-handed Lascars, of expirees and ticket-of-leave men, of Jews, Turks and other infidels. Long Jim, himself stunned by it all: by the pother of landing and of finding a roof to cover him; by the ruinous price of bare necessaries; by the length of this unheard-of walk that lay before his town-bred feet: Long Jim had gladly accepted the young man's company on the road. Originally, for no more than this; at heart he distrusted Young Bill, because of his fine-gentleman airs, and intended shaking the lad off as soon as they reached the diggings. There, a man must, for safety's sake, be alone, when he stooped to pick up his fortune. But at first sight of the strange, wild scene that met his eyes he hastily changed his mind. And so the two of them had stuck together; and he had never had cause to regret it. For all his lily-white hands and finical speech Young Bill had worked like a nigger, standing by his mate through the latter's disasters; had worked till the ladyish hands were horny with warts and corns, and this, though he was doubled up with dysentery in the hot season, and racked by winter cramps. But the life had proved too hard for him, all the same. During the previous summer he had begun to drink—steadily, with the dogged persistence that was in him—and since then his work had gone downhill. His sudden death had only been a hastening-on of the inevitable. Staggering home to the tent after nightfall he would have been sure, sooner or later, to fall into a dry shicer and break his neck, or into a wet one and be drowned.
On the surface of the Gravel Pit his fate was already forgotten. The rude activity of a gold-diggings in full swing had closed over the incident, swallowed it up.
Under a sky so pure and luminous that it seemed like a thinly drawn veil of blueness, which ought to have been transparent, stretched what, from a short way off, resembled a desert of pale clay. No patch of green offered rest to the eye; not a tree, hardly a stunted bush had been left standing, either on the bottom of the vast shallow basin itself, or on the several hillocks that dotted it and formed its sides. Even the most prominent of these, the Black Hill, which jutted out on the Flat like a gigantic tumulus, had been stripped of its dense timber, feverishly disembowelled, and was now become a bald protuberance strewn with gravel and clay. The whole scene had that strange, repellent ugliness that goes with breaking up and throwing into disorder what has been sanctified as final, and belongs, in particular, to the wanton disturbing of earth's gracious, green-spread crust. In the pre-golden era this wide valley, lying open to sun and wind, had been a lovely grassland, ringed by a circlet of wooded hills; beyond these, by a belt of virgin forest. A limpid river and more than one creek had meandered across its face; water was to be found there even in the driest summer. She-oaks and peppermint had given shade to the flocks of the early settlers; wattles had bloomed their brief delirious yellow passion against the grey-green foliage of the gums. Now, all that was left of the original "pleasant resting-place" and its pristine beauty were the ancient volcanic cones of Warrenheip and Buninyong. These, too far off to supply wood for firing or slabbing, still stood green and timbered, and looked down upon the havoc that had been made of the fair, pastoral lands.
Seen nearer at hand, the dun-coloured desert resolved itself into uncountable pimpling clay and mud-heaps, of divers shade and varying sizes: some consisted of but a few bucketfuls of mullock, others were taller than the tallest man. There were also hundreds of rain-soaked, mud-bespattered tents, sheds and awnings; wind-sails, which fell, funnel-like, from a kind of gallows into the shafts they ventilated; flags fluttering on high posts in front of stores. The many human figures that went to and fro were hardly to be distinguished from the ground they trod. They were coated with earth, clay-clad in ochre and gamboge. Their faces were daubed with clauber; it matted great beards, and entangled the coarse hairs on chests and brawny arms. Where, here and there, a blue jumper had kept a tinge of blueness, it was so besmeared with yellow that it might have been expected to turn green. The gauze neck-veils that hung from the brims of wide-awakes or cabbage-trees were become stiff little lattices of caked clay.
There was water everywhere. From the spurs and gullies round about, the autumn rains had poured freely down on the Flat; river and creeks had been over their banks; and such narrow ground-space as remained between the thick-sown tents, the myriads of holes that abutted one on another, jealous of every inch of space, had become a trough of mud. Water meandered over this mud, or carved its soft way in channels; it lay about in puddles, thick and dark as coffee-grounds; it filled abandoned shallow holes to the brim.
From this scene rose a blurred hum of sound; rose and as it were remained stationary above it—like a smoke-cloud, which no wind comes to drive away. Gradually, though, the ear made out, in the conglomerate of noise, a host of separate noises infinitely multiplied: the sharp tick-tick of surface-picks, the dull thud of shovels, their muffled echoes from the depths below. There was also the continuous squeak and groan of windlasses; the bump of the mullock emptied from the bucket; the trundle of wheelbarrows, pushed along a plank from the shaft's mouth to the nearest pool; the dump of the dart on the heap for washing. Along the banks of a creek, hundreds of cradles rattled and grated; the noise of the spades, chopping the gravel into the puddling-tubs or the Long Toms, was like the scrunch of shingle under waves. The fierce yelping of the dogs chained to the flag-posts of stores, mongrels which yapped at friend and foe alike, supplied a note of earsplitting discord.
But except for this it was a wholly mechanical din. Human brains directed operations, human hands carried them out, but the sound of the human voice was, for the most part, lacking. The diggers were a sombre, preoccupied race, little given to lip-work. Even the "shepherds," who, in waiting to see if their neighbours struck the lead, beguiled the time with euchre and "lambskinnet," played moodily, their mouths glued to their pipe-stems; they were tail-on-end to fling down the cards for pick and shovel. The great majority, ant-like in their indefatigable busyness, neither turned a head nor looked up: backs were bent, eyes fixed, in a hard scrutiny of cradle or tin-dish: it was the earth that held them, the familiar, homely earth, whose common fate it is to be trodden heedlessly underfoot. Here, it was the loadstone that drew all men's thoughts. And it took toll of their bodies in odd, exhausting forms of labour, which were swift to weed out the unfit.
The men at the windlasses spat into their horny palms and bent to the crank: they paused only to pass the back of a hand over a sweaty forehead, or to drain a nose between two fingers. The barrow-drivers shoved their loads, the bones of their forearms standing out like ribs. Beside the pools, the puddlers chopped with their shovels; some even stood in the tubs, and worked the earth with their feet, as wine-pressers trample grapes. The cradlers, eternally rocking with one hand, held a long stick in the other with which to break up any clods a careless puddler might have deposited in the hopper. Behind these came the great army of fossickers, washers of surface-dirt, equipped with knives and tin-dishes, and content if they could wash out half-a-pennyweight to the dish. At their heels still others, who treated the tailings they threw away. And among these last was a sprinkling of women, more than one with an infant sucking at her breast. Withdrawn into a group for themselves worked a body of Chinese, in loose blue blouses, flappy blue leg-bags and huge conical straw hats. They, too, fossicked and re-washed, using extravagant quantities of water.
Thus the pale-eyed multitude worried the surface, and, at the risk and cost of their lives, probed the depths. Now that deep sinking was in vogue, gold-digging no longer served as a play-game for the gentleman and the amateur; the greater number of those who toiled at it were work-tried, seasoned men. And yet, although it had now sunk to the level of any other arduous and uncertain occupation, and the magic prizes of the early days were seldom found, something of the old, romantic glamour still clung to this most famous gold-field, dazzling the eyes and confounding the judgment. Elsewhere, the horse was in use at the puddling-trough, and machines for crushing quartz were under discussion. But the Ballarat digger resisted the introduction of machinery, fearing the capitalist machinery would bring in its train. He remained the dreamer, the jealous individualist; he hovered for ever on the brink of a stupendous discovery.
This dream it was, of vast wealth got without exertion, which had decoyed the strange, motley crowd, in which peers and churchmen rubbed shoulders with the scum of Norfolk Island, to exile in this outlandish region. And the intention of all alike had been: to snatch a golden fortune from the earth and then, hey, presto! for the old world again. But they were reckoning without their host: only too many of those who entered the country went out no more. They became prisoners to the soil. The fabulous riches of which they had heard tell amounted, at best, to a few thousands of pounds: what folly to depart with so little, when mother earth still teemed! Those who drew blanks nursed an unquenchable hope, and laboured all their days like navvies, for a navvy's wage. Others again, broken in health or disheartened, could only turn to an easier handiwork. There were also men who, as soon as fortune smiled on them, dropped their tools and ran to squander the work of months in a wild debauch; and they invariably returned, tail down, to prove their luck anew. And, yet again, there were those who, having once seen the metal in the raw: in dust, fine as that brushed from a butterfly's wing; in heavy, chubby nuggets; or, more exquisite still, as the daffodil-yellow veining of bluish-white quartz: these were gripped in the subtlest way of all. A passion for the gold itself awoke in them an almost sensual craving to touch and possess; and the glitter of a few specks at the bottom of pan or cradle came, in time, to mean more to them than "home," or wife, or child.
Such were the fates of those who succumbed to the "unholy hunger." It was like a form of revenge taken on them, for their loveless schemes of robbing and fleeing; a revenge contrived by the ancient, barbaric country they had so lightly invaded. Now, she held them captive—without chains; ensorcelled—without witchcraft; and, lying stretched like some primeval monster in the sun, her breasts freely bared, she watched, with a malignant eye, the efforts made by these puny mortals to tear their lips away.
On the summit of one of the clay heaps, a woman shot into silhouette against the sky. An odd figure, clad in a skimpy green petticoat, with a scarlet shawl held about her shoulders, wisps of frowsy red hair standing out round her head, she balanced herself on the slippery earth, spinning her arm like the vane of a windmill, and crying at the top of her voice: "Joe, boys!—Joe, Joe, Joey!"
It was as if, with these words, she had dropped a live shell in the diggers' midst. A general stampede ensued; in which the cry was caught up, echoed and re-echoed, till the whole Flat rang with the name of "Joe." Tools were dropped, cradles and tubs abandoned, windlasses left to kick their cranks backwards. Many of the workers took to their heels; others, in affright, scuttled aimlessly hither and thither, like barnyard fowls in a panic. Summoned by shouts of: "Up with you, boys!—the traps are here!" numbers ascended from below to see the fun, while as many went hurriedly down to hiding in drive or chamber. Even those diggers who could pat the pocket in which their licence lay ceased work, and stood about with sullen faces to view the course of events. Only the group of Chinamen washing tail-heaps remained unmoved. One of them, to whom the warning woman belonged, raised his head and called a Chinese word at her; she obeyed it instantly, vanished into thin air; the rest went impassively on with their fossicking. They were not such fools as to try to cheat the Government of its righteous dues. None but had his licence safely folded in his nosecloth, and thrust inside the bosom of his blouse.
Through the labyrinth of tents and mounds, a gold-laced cap could be seen approaching; then a gold-tressed jacket came into view, the white star on the forehead of a mare. Behind the Commissioner, who rode down thus from the Camp, came the members of his staff; these again were followed by a body of mounted troopers. They drew rein on the slope, and simultaneously a line of foot police, backed by a detachment of light infantry, shot out like an arm, and walled in the Flat to the south.
On the appearance of the enemy the babel redoubled. There were groans and cat-calls. Along with the derisive "Joeys!" the rebel diggers hurled any term of abuse that came to their lips.
"The dolly mops! The skunks! The bushrangers!—Oh, damn 'em, damn 'em! ... damn their bloody eyes!"
"It's Rooshia—that's what it is!" said an oldish man darkly.
The Commissioner, a horse-faced, solemn man with brown side whiskers, let the reins droop on his mare's neck and sat unwinking in the tumult. His mien was copied by his staff. Only one of them, a very young boy who was new to the colony and his post, changed colour under his gaudy cap, went from white to pink and from pink to white again; while at each fresh insult he gave a perceptible start, and gazed dumbfounded at his chief's insensitive back.
The "bloodhounds" had begun to track their prey. Rounding up, with a skill born of long practice, they drove the diggers before them towards the centre of the Flat. Here they passed from group to group and from hole to hole, calling for the production of licences with an insolence that made its object see red. They were nice of scent, too, and, nine times in ten, pounced on just those unfortunates who, through carelessness, or lack of means, or on political grounds, had failed to take out the month's licence to dig for gold. Every few minutes one or another was marched off between two constables to the Government Camp, for fine or imprisonment.
Now it was that it suddenly entered Long Jim's head to cut and run. Up till now he had stood declaring himself a free-born Briton, who might be drawn and quartered if he ever again paid the blasted tax. But, as the police came closer, a spear of fright pierced his befuddled brain, and inside a breath he was off and away. Had the abruptness of his start not given him a slight advantage, he would have been caught at once. As it was, the chase would not be a long one; the clumsy, stiff-jointed man slithered here and stuck fast there, dodging obstacles with an awkwardness that was painful to see. He could be heard sobbing and cursing as he ran.
At this point the Commissioner, half turning, signed to the troopers in his rear. Six or seven of them shook up their bridles and rode off, their scabbards clinking, to prevent the fugitive's escape.
A howl of contempt went up from the crowd. The pink and white subaltern made what was almost a movement of the arm to intercept his superior's command.
It was too much for Long Jim's last mate, the youthful blackbeard who had pluckily descended the shaft after the accident. He had been standing on a mound with a posse of others, following the man-hunt. At his partner's crack-brained dash for the open, his snorts of indignation found words. "Gaw-blimy! ... is the old fool gone dotty?" Then he drew a whistling breath. "No, it's more than flesh and blood .... Stand back, boys!" And though he was as little burdened with a licence as the man under pursuit, he shouted: "Help, help! ... for God's sake, don't let 'em have me!" shot down the slope, and was off like the wind.
His foxly object was attained. The attention of the hunters was diverted. Long Jim, seizing the moment, vanished underground.
The younger man ran with the lightness of a hare. He had also the hare's address in doubling and turning. His pursuers never knew, did he pass from sight behind a covert of tents and mounds, where he would bob up next. He avoided shafts and pools as if by a miracle; ran along greasy planks without a slip; and, where these had been removed to balk the police, he jumped the holes, taking risks that were not for a sane man. Once he fell, but, enslimed from head to foot, wringing wet and hatless, was up again in a twinkling. His enemies were less sure-footed than he, and times without number measured their length on the oily ground. Still, one of them was gaining rapidly on him, a giant of a fellow with long thin legs; and soon the constable's foot filled the prints left by the young man's, while these were still warm. It was a fine run. The diggers trooped after in a body; the Flat rang with cheers and plaudits. Even the Commissioner and his retinue trotted in the same direction. Eventually the runaway must land in the arms of the mounted police.
But this was not his plan. Making as though he headed for the open, he suddenly dashed off at right angles, and, with a final sprint, brought up dead against a log-and-canvas store which stood on rising ground. His adversary was so close behind that a collision resulted; the digger's feet slid from under him, he fell on his face, the other on top. In their fall they struck a huge pillar of tin-dishes, ingeniously built up to the height of the store itself. This toppled over with a crash, and the dishes went rolling down the slope between the legs of the police. The dog chained to the flagstaff all but strangled himself in his rage and excitement; and the owner of the store came running out.
"Purdy! ... you! What in the name of ...?"
The digger adroitly rolled his captor over, and there they both sat, side by side on the ground, one gripping the other's collar, both too blown to speak. A cordon of puffing constables hemmed them in.
The storekeeper frowned. "You've no licence, you young beggar!"
And: "Your licence, you scoundrel!" demanded the leader of the troop.
The prisoner's rejoinder was a saucy: "Now then, out with the cuffs, Joe!"
He got on his feet as bidden; but awkwardly, for it appeared that in falling he had hurt his ankle. Behind the police were massed the diggers. These opened a narrow alley for the Camp officials to ride through, but their attitude was hostile, and there were cries of: "Leave 'im go, yer blackguards! ... after sich a run! None o yer bloody quod for 'im!" along with other, more threatening expressions. Sombre and taciturn, the Commissioner waved his hand. "Take him away!"
"Well, so long, Dick!" said the culprit jauntily; and, as he offered his wrists to be handcuffed, he whistled an air.
Here the storekeeper hurriedly interposed: "No, stop! I'll give bail." And darting into the tent and out again, he counted five one-pound notes into the constable's palm. The lad's collar was released; and a murmur of satisfaction mounted from the crowd.
At the sound the giver made as if to retire. Then, yielding to a second thought, he stepped forward and saluted the Commissioner. "A young hot-head, sir! He means no harm. I'll send him up in the morning, to apologise."
("I'll be damned if you do!" muttered the digger between his teeth.)
But the Chief refused to be placated. "Good day, doctor," he said shortly, and with his staff at heel trotted down the slope, followed till out of earshot by a mocking fire of "Joes." Lingering in the rear, the youthful sympathiser turned in his saddle and waved his cap.
The raid was over for that day. The crowd dispersed; its members became orderly, hard-working men once more. The storekeeper hushed his frantic dog, and called his assistant to rebuild the pillar of tins.
The young digger sat down on the log that served for a bench, and examined his foot. He pulled and pulled, causing himself great pain, but could not get his boot off. At last, looking back over his shoulder he cried impatiently: "Dick!... I say, Dick Mahony! Give us a drink, old boy! ... I'm dead-beat."
At this the storekeeper—a tall, slenderly built man of some seven or eight and twenty—appeared, bearing a jug and a pannikin.
"Oh, bah!" said the lad, when he found that the jug held only water. And, on his friend reminding him that he might by now have been sitting in the lock-up, he laughed and winked. "I knew you'd go bail."
"Well! ... of all the confounded impudence...."
"Faith, Dick, and d'ye think I didn't see how your hand itched for your pocket?"
The man he called Mahony flushed above his fair beard. It was true: he had made an involuntary movement of the hand—checked for the rest halfway, by the knowledge that the pocket was empty. He looked displeased and said nothing.
"Don't be afraid, I'll pay you back soon's ever me ship comes home," went on the young scapegrace, who very well knew how to play his cards. At his companion's heated disclaimer, however, he changed his tone. "I say, Dick, have a look at my foot, will you? I can't get this damned boot off."
The elder man bent over the injury. He ceased to show displeasure. "Purdy, you young fool, when will you learn wisdom?"
"Well, they shouldn't hunt old women, then—the swine!" gave back Purdy; and told his tale. "Oh, lor! there go six canaries." For, at his wincing and shrinking, his friend had taken a penknife and ripped up the jackboot. Now, practised hands explored the swollen, discoloured ankle.
When it had been washed and bandaged, its owner stretched himself on the ground, his head in the shade of a barrel, and went to sleep.
He slept till sundown, through all the traffic of a busy afternoon.
Some half-a-hundred customers came and went. The greater number of them were earth-stained diggers, who ran up for, it might be, a missing tool, or a hide bucket, or a coil of rope. They spat jets of tobacco-juice, were richly profane, paid, where coin was scarce, in gold-dust from a match-box, and hurried back to work. But there also came old harridans—as often as not, diggers themselves—whose language outdid that of the males, and dirty Irish mothers; besides a couple of the white women who inhabited the Chinese quarter. One of these was in liquor, and a great hullabaloo took place before she could be got rid of. Put out, she stood in front of the tent, her hair hanging down her back, cursing and reviling. Respectable women as well did an afternoon's shopping there. In no haste to be gone, they sat about on empty boxes or upturned barrels exchanging confidences, while weary children plucked at their skirts. A party of youngsters entered, the tallest of whom could just see over the counter, and called for shandygaffs. The assistant was for chasing them off, with hard words. But the storekeeper put, instead, a stick of barley-sugar into each dirty, outstretched hand, and the imps retired well content. On their heels came a digger and his lady-love to choose a wedding-outfit; and all the gaudy finery the store held was displayed before them. A red velvet dress flounced with satin, a pink gauze bonnet, white satin shoes and white silk stockings met their fancy. The dewy-lipped, smutty-lashed Irish girl blushed and dimpled, in consulting with the shopman upon the stays in which to lace her ample figure; the digger, whose very pores oozed gold, planked down handfuls of dust and nuggets, and brushed aside a neat Paisley shawl for one of yellow satin, the fellow to which he swore to having seen on the back of the Governor's lady herself. He showered brandy-snaps on the children, and bought a polka-jacket for a shabby old woman. Then, producing a bottle of champagne from a sack he bore, he called on those present to give him, after: "'Er most Gracious little Majesty, God bless 'er!" the: "'Oly estate of materimony!" The empty bottle smashed for luck, the couple departed arm-in-arm, carrying their purchases in the sack; and the rest of the company trooped to the door with them, to wish them joy.
Within the narrow confines of the tent, where red-herrings trailed over moleskin-shorts, and East India pickles and Hessian boots lay on the top of sugar and mess-pork; where cheeses rubbed shoulders with tallow candles, blue and red serge shirts, and captain's biscuits; where onions, and guernseys, and sardines, fine combs, cigars and bear's-grease, Windsor soap, tinned coffee and hair oil, revolvers, shovels and Oxford shoes, lay in one grand miscellany: within the crowded store, as the afternoon wore on, the air grew rank and oppressive. Precisely at six o'clock the bar was let down across the door, and the storekeeper withdrew to his living-room at the back of the tent. Here he changed his coat and meticulously washed his hands, to which clung a subtle blend of all the strong-smelling goods that had passed through them. Then, coming round to the front, he sat down on the log and took out his pipe. He made a point, no matter how brisk trade was, of not keeping open after dark. His evenings were his own.
He sat and puffed, tranquilly. It was a fine night. The first showy splendour of sunset had passed; but the upper sky was still aflush with colour. And in the centre of this frail cloud, which faded as he watched it, swam a single star.
With the passing of a cooler air the sleeper wakened and rubbed his eyes. Letting his injured leg lie undisturbed, he drew up the other knee and buckled his hands round it. In this position he sat and talked.
He was a dark, fresh-coloured young man, of middle height, and broadly built. He had large white teeth of a kind to crack nuts with, and the full, wide, flexible mouth that denotes the generous talker.
"What a wind-bag it is, to be sure!" thought his companion, as he smoked and listened, in a gently ironic silence, to abuse of the Government. He knew—or thought he knew—young Purdy inside out.
But behind all the froth of the boy's talk there lurked, it seemed, a purpose. No sooner was a meal of cold chop and tea over than Purdy declared his intention of being present at a meeting of malcontent diggers. Nor would he even wait to wash himself clean of mud.
His friend reluctantly agreed to lend him an arm. But he could not refrain from taking the lad to task for getting entangled in the political imbroglio. "When, as you know, it's just a kind of sport to you."
Purdy sulked for a few paces, then burst out: "If only you weren't so damned detached, Dick Mahony!"
"You're restless, and want excitement, my boy—that's the root of the trouble."
"Well, I'm jiggered! If ever I knew a restless mortal, it's yourself."
The two men picked their steps across the Flat and up the opposite hillside, young Purdy Smith limping and leaning heavy, his lame foot thrust into an old slipper. He was at all times hail-fellow-well-met with the world. Now, in addition, his plucky exploit of the afternoon blazed its way through the settlement; and blarney and bravos rained upon him. "Golly for you, Purdy, old 'oss!" "Showed 'em the diggers' flag, 'e did!" "What'll you take, me buck? Come on in for a drop o' the real strip-me-down-naked!" Even a weary old strumpet, propping herself against the doorway of a dancing-saloon, waved a tipsy hand and cried: "Arrah, an' is it yerrself, Purrdy, me bhoy? Shure an' it's bussin' ye I'd be afther—if me legs would carry me!" And Purdy laughed, and relished the honey, and had an answer pat for everybody especially the women. His companion on the other hand was greeted with a glibness that had something perfunctory in it, and no touch of familiarity.
The big canvas tent on Bakery Hill, where the meeting was to be held, was already lighted; and at the tinkle of a bell the diggers, who till then had stood cracking and hobnobbing outside, began to push for the entrance. The bulk of them belonged to the race that is quickest to resent injustice—were Irish. After them in number came the Germans, swaggering and voluble; and the inflammable French, English, Scotch and Americans formed a smaller and cooler, but very dogged group.
At the end of the tent a rough platform had been erected, on which stood a row of cane seats. In the body of the hall, the benches were formed of boards, laid from one upturned keg or tub to another. The chair was taken by a local auctioneer, a cadaverous-looking man, with never a twinkle in his eye, who, in a lengthy discourse and with the single monotonous gesture of beating the palm of one hand with the back of the other, strove to bring home to his audience the degradation of their present political status. The diggers chewed and spat, and listened to his periods with sang-froid: the shame of their state did not greatly move them. They followed, too, with composure, the rehearsal of their general grievances. As they were aware, said the speaker, the Legislative Council of Victoria was made up largely of Crown nominees; in the election of members the gold-seeking population had no voice whatsoever. This was a scandalous thing; for the digging constituent outnumbered all the rest of the population put together, thus forming what he would call the backbone and mainstay of the colony. The labour of THEIR hands had raised the colony to its present pitch of prosperity. And yet these same bold and hardy pioneers were held incapable of deciding jot or tittle in the public affairs of their adopted home. Still unmoved, the diggers listened to this recital of their virtues. But when one man, growing weary of the speaker's unctuous wordiness, discharged a fierce: "Why the hell don't yer git on to the bloody licence-tax?" the audience was fire and flame in an instant. A riotous noise ensued; rough throats rang changes on the question. Order restored, it was evident that the speech was over. Thrown violently out of his concept, the auctioneer struck and struck at his palm—in vain; nothing would come. So, making the best of a bad job, he irately sat down in favour of his successor on the programme.
This speaker did not fare much better. The assemblage, roused now, jolly and merciless, was not disposed to give quarter; and his obtuseness in dawdling over such high-flown notions as that population, not property, formed the basis of representative government, reaped him a harvest of boos and groans. This was not what the diggers had come out to hear. And they were as direct as children in their demand for the gist of the matter.
"A reg-lar ol' shicer!" was the unanimous opinion, expressed without scruple. While from the back of the hall came the curt request to him to shut his "tater-trap."
Next on the list was a German, a ruddy-faced man with mutton-chop whiskers and prominent, watery eyes. He could not manage the letter "r." In the body of a word where it was negligible, he rolled it out as though it stood three deep. Did he tackle it as an initial, on the other hand, his tongue seemed to cleave to his palate, and to yield only an "l." This quaint defect caused some merriment at the start, but was soon eclipsed by a more striking oddity. The speaker had the habit of, as it were, creaking with his nose. After each few sentences he paused, to give himself time to produce something between a creak and a snore—an abortive attempt to get at a mucus that was plainly out of reach.
The diggers were beside themselves with mirth.
"'E's forgot 'is 'ankey!"
"'Ere, boys, look slippy!—a 'ankey for ol' sausage!"
But the German was not sensitive to ridicule. He had something to say, and he was there to say it. Fixing his fish-like eyes on a spot high up the tent wall, he kept them pinned to it, while he mouthed out blood-and-thunder invectives. He was, it seemed, a red-hot revolutionist; a fierce denouncer of British rule. He declared the British monarchy to be an effete institution; the fetish of British freedom to have been "exbloded" long ago. What they needed, in this grand young country of theirs, was a "republic"; they must rid themselves of those shackles that had been forged in the days when men were slaves. It was his sound conviction that before many weeks had passed, the Union Jack would have been hauled down for ever, and the glorious Southern Cross would wave in its stead, over a free Australia. The day on which this happened would be a never-to-be-forgotten date in the annals of the country. For what, he would like to know, had the British flag ever done for freedom, at any time in the world's history? They should read in their school-books, and there they would learn that wherever a people had risen against their tyrants, the Union Jack had waved, not over them, but over the British troops sent to stamp the rising out.
This was more than Mahony could stomach. Flashing up from his seat, he strove to assert himself above the hum of agreement that mounted from the foreign contingent, and the doubtful sort of grumble by which the Britisher signifies his disapproval.
"Mr. Chairman! Gentlemen!" he cried in a loud voice. "I call upon those loyal subjects of her Majesty who are present here, to join with me in giving three cheers for the British flag. Hip, hip, hurrah! And, again, hip, hip, hurrah! And, once more, hip, hip, hurrah!"
His compatriots followed him, though flabbily; and he continued to make himself heard above the shouts of "Order!" and the bimming of the chairman's bell.
"Mr. Chairman! I appeal to you. Are we Britons to sit still and hear our country's flag reviled?—that flag which has ensured us the very liberty we are enjoying this evening. The gentleman who has been pleased to slander it is not, I believe, a British citizen. Now, I put it to him: is there another country on the face of the earth, that would allow people of all nations to flock into a gold-bearing colony on terms of perfect equality with its own subjects?—to flock in, take all they can get, and then make off with it?" a point of view that elicited forcible grunts of assent, which held their own against hoots and hisses. Unfortunately the speaker did not stop here, but went on: "Gentlemen! Do not, I implore you, allow yourselves to be led astray by a handful of ungrateful foreigners, who have received nothing but benefits from our Crown. What you need, gentlemen, is not revolution, but reform; not strife and bloodshed, but a liberty consistent with law and order. And this, gentlemen,——"
("You'll never get 'em like that, Dick," muttered Purdy.)
"Not so much gentlemening, if YOU please!" said a sinister-looking man, who might have been a Vandemonian in his day. "MEN'S what we are—that's good enough for us."
Mahony was nettled. The foreigners, too, were pressing him.
"Am I then to believe, sir, what I frequently hear asserted, that there are no gentlemen left on the diggings?"
("Oh lor, Dick!" said Purdy. He was sitting with his elbows on his knees, clutching his cheeks as though he had the toothache.)
"Oh, stow yer blatherskite!"
"Believe what yer bloody well like!" retorted the Vandemonian fiercely. "But don't come 'ere and interrupt our pleasant and h'orderly meetings with YOUR blamed jaw."
Mahony lost his temper. "I not interrupt?—when I see you great hulks of men—"
("Oh, lor!" groaned Purdy again.)
"—who call yourselves British subjects, letting yourselves be led by the nose, like the sheep you are, by a pack of foreigners who are basely accepting this country's hospital'ty?"
"Here, let me," said Purdy. And pushing his way along the bench he hobbled to the platform, where several arms hoisted him up.
There he stood, fronting the violent commotion that had ensued on his friend's last words; stood bedraggled, mud-stained, bandaged, his cabbage-tree hat in his hand. And Mahony, still on his feet, angrily erect, thought he understood why the boy had refused to wash himself clean, or to change his dress: he had no doubt foreseen the possibility of some such dramatic appearance.
Purdy waited for the hubbub to die down. As if by chance he had rested his hand on the bell; its provoking tinkle ceased. Now he broke into one of the frank and hearty smiles that never fail to conciliate.
The strongly spoken words induced an abrupt lull. The audience turned to him, still thorny and sulky it was true, but yet they turned; and one among them demanded a hearing for the youngster.
"Brother diggers! We are met here to-night with a single purpose in view. Brother diggers! We are not met here to throw mud at our dear old country's flag! Nor will we have a word said against her most gracious Majesty, the Queen. Not us! We're men first, whose business it is to stand up for a gallant little woman, and diggers with a grievance afterwards. Are you with me, boys?—Very well, then.— Now we didn't come here to-night to confab about getting votes, or having a hand in public affairs—much as we want 'em both and mean to have 'em, when the time comes. No, to-night there's only one thing that matters to us, and that's the repeal of the accursed tax!" Here, such a tempest of applause broke out that he was unable to proceed. "Yes, I say it again," he went on, when they would let him speak; "the instant repeal! When that's been done, this curse taken off us, then it'll be time enough to parlez-vous about the colour of the flag we mean to have, and about going shares in the Government. But let me make one thing clear to you. We're neither traitors to the Crown, nor common rebels. We're true-blue Britons, who have been goaded to rebellion by one of the vilest pieces of tyranny that ever saw the light. Spies and informers are everywhere about us. Mr. Commissioner Sleuth and his hounds may cry tally-ho every day, if 'tis their pleasure to! To put it shortly, boys, we're living under semi-martial law. To such a state have we free-born men, men who came out but to see the elephant, been reduced, by the asinine stupidity of the Government, by the impudence and knavishness of its officials. Brother diggers! When you leave the hall this evening, look over at the hill on which the Camp stands! What will you see? You will see a blaze of light, and hear the sounds of revelry by night. There, boys, hidden from our mortal view, but visible to our mind's eye, sit Charley Joe's minions, carousing at our expense, washing down each mouthful with good fizz bought with our hard-earned gold. Licence-pickings, boys, and tips from new grog-shops, and the blasted farce of the Commissariat! We're supposed—"
But here Mahony gave a loud click of the tongue—in the general howl of execration it passed unheard—and, pushing his way out of the tent, let the flap-door fall to behind him.
He retraced his steps by the safe-conduct of a full moon, which showed up the gaping black mouths of circular shafts and silvered the water that flooded abandoned oblong holes to their brim. Tents and huts stood white and forsaken in the moonlight: their owners were either gathered on Bakery Hill, or had repaired to one of the gambling and dancing saloons that lined the main street. Arrived at the store he set his frantic dog free, and putting a match to his pipe, began to stroll up and down.
He felt annoyed with himself for having helped to swell the crowd of malcontents; and still more for his foolishness in giving the rein to a momentary irritation. As if it mattered a doit what trash these foreigners talked! No thinking person took their bombast seriously; the authorities, with great good sense, let it pass for what it was—a noisy blowing-off of steam. At heart, the diggers were as sound as good pippins.
A graver consideration was Purdy's growing fellowship with the rebel faction. The boy was too young and still too much of a fly-by-night to have a black mark set against his name. It would be the more absurd, considering that his sincerity in espousing the diggers' cause was far from proved. He was of a nature to ride tantivy into anything that promised excitement or adventure. With, it must regretfully be admitted, an increasing relish for the limelight, for theatrical effect—see the cunning with which he had made capital out of a bandaged ankle and dirty dress! At this rate, and with his engaging ways, he would soon stand for a little god to the rough, artless crowd. No, he must leave the diggings—and Mahony rolled various schemes in his mind. He had it! In the course of the next week or two business would make a journey to Melbourne imperative. Well, he would damn the extra expense and take the boy along with him! Purdy was at a loose end, and would no doubt rise like a fish to a fly at the chance of getting to town free of cost. After all, why be hard on him? He was not much over twenty, and, at that age, it was natural enough—especially in a place like this—for a lad to flit like a butterfly from every cup that took his restless fancy.
Restless? ... h'm! It was the word Purdy had flung back at him, earlier in the evening. At the time, he had rebutted the charge, with a glance at fifteen months spent behind the counter of a store. But there was a modicum of truth in it, none the less. The life one led out here was not calculated to tone down any innate restlessness of temperament: on the contrary, it directly hindered one from becoming fixed and settled. It was on a par with the houses you lived in—these flimsy tents and draught-riddled cabins you put up with, "for the time being"—was just as much of a makeshift affair as they. Its keynote was change. Fortunes were made, and lost, and made again, before you could say Jack Robinson; whole townships shot up over-night, to be deserted the moment the soil ceased to yield; the people you knew were here to-day, and gone—sold up, burnt out, or dead and buried—to-morrow. And so, whether you would or not, your whole outlook became attuned to the general unrest; you lived in a constant anticipation of what was coming next. Well, he could own to the weakness with more justification than most. If trade continued to prosper with him as it did at present, it would be no time before he could sell out and joyfully depart for the old country.
In the meantime, why complain? He had much to be thankful for. To take only a small point: was this not Saturday night? To-morrow the store was closed, and a string of congenial occupations offered: from chopping the week's wood—a clean and wholesome task, which he gladly performed—through the pages of an engrossing book to a botanical ramble round old Buninyong. The thought of it cheered him. He stooped to caress his two cats, which had come out to bear him the mute and pleasant company of their kind.
What a night! The great round silver moon floated serenely through space, dimming the stars as it made them, and bathing the earth in splendour. It was so light that straight black lines of smoke could be seen mounting from chimneys and open-air fires. The grass-trees which supplied the fuel for these fires spread a pleasant balsamic odour, and the live red patches contrasted oddly with the pale ardour of the moon. Lights twinkled over all the township, but were brightest in Main Street, the course of which they followed like a rope of fireflies, and at the Government Camp on the steep western slope, where no doubt, as young Purdy had impudently averred, the officials still sat over the dinner-table. It was very quiet—no grog-shops or saloons-of-entertainment in this neighbourhood, thank goodness!—and the hour was still too early for drunken roisterers to come reeling home. The only sound to be heard was that of a man's voice singing OFT IN THE STILLY NIGHT, to the yetching accompaniment of a concertina. Mahony hummed the tune.
But it was growing cold, as the nights were apt to do on this tableland once summer was past. He whistled his dog, and Pompey hurried out with a guilty air from the back of the house, where the old shaft stood that served to hold refuse. Mahony put him on the chain, and was just about to turn in when two figures rounded the corner of a tent and came towards him, pushing their shadows before them on the milk-white ground.
"'D evenin', doc," said the shorter of the two, a nuggetty little man who carried his arms curved out from his sides, gorilla-fashion.
"Oh, good evening, Mr. Ocock," said Mahony, recognising a neighbour.— "Why, Tom, that you? Back already, my boy?"—this to a loutish, loose-limbed lad who followed behind.—"You don't of course come from the meeting?"
"Not me, indeed!" gave back his visitor with gall, and turned his head to spit the juice from a plug. "I've got suthin' better to do as to listen to a pack o' jabberin' furriners settin' one another by th'ears."
"Nor you, Tom?" Mahony asked the lad, who stood sheepishly shifting his weight from one leg to the other.
"Nay, nor 'im eether," jumped in his father, before he could speak. "I'll 'ave none o' my boys playin' the fool up there. And that reminds me, doc, young Smith'll git 'imself inter the devil of a mess one o' these days, if you don't look after 'im a bit better'n you do. I 'eard 'im spoutin' away as I come past—usin' language about the Gover'ment fit to turn you sick."
Mahony coughed. "He's but young yet," he said drily. "After all, youth's youth, sir, and comes but once in a lifetime. And you can't make lads into wiseacres between sundown and sunrise."
"No, by Gawd, you can't!" affirmed his companion. "But I think youth's just a fine name for a sort o' piggish mess What's the good, one 'ud like to know, of gettin' old, and learnin' wisdom, and knowin' the good from the bad, when ev'ry lousy young fathead that's born inter the world starts out again to muddle through it for 'imself, in 'is own way. And that things 'as got to go on like this, just the same, for ever and ever—why, it makes me fair tired to think of it. My father didn't 'old with youth: 'e knocked it out of us by thrashin', just like lyin' and thievin'. And it's the best way, too.— Wot's that you say?" he flounced round on the unoffending Tom. "Nothin'? You was only snifflin', was you? You keep your fly-trap shut, my fine fellow, and make no mousy sounds to me, or it'll be the worse for you, I can tell you!"
"Come, Mr. Ocock, don't be too hard on the boy."
"Not be 'ard on 'im? When I've got the nasty galoon on me 'ands again like this?—Chucks up the good post I git 'im in Kilmore, without with your leave or by your leave. Too lonely for 'is lordship it was. Missed the sound o' wimmin's petticoats, 'e did." He turned fiercely on his son. "'Ere, don't you stand starin' there! You get 'ome, and fix up for the night. Now then, wot are you dawdlin' for, pig-'ead?"
The boy slunk away. When he had disappeared, his father again took up the challenge of Mahony's silent disapproval. "I can't 'ardly bear the sight of 'im, doc.—disgracin' me as 'e 'as done. 'Im a father, and not eighteen till June! A son o' mine, who can't see a wench with 'er bodice open, but wot 'e must be arter 'er.... No, sir, no son o' mine! I'm a respectable man, I am!"
"Of course, of course."
"Oh! but they're a sore trial to me, these boys, doc. 'Enry's the only one ... if it weren't for 'Enry—Johnny, 'e can't pass the drink, and now 'ere's this young swine started to nose arter the wimmin."
"There's good stuff in the lads, I'm sure of it. They're just sowing their wild oats."
"They'll sow no h'oats with me."
"I tell you what it is, Mr. Ocock, you need a woman about your place, to make it a bit more homelike," said Mahony, calling to mind the pigstye in which Ocock and his sons housed.
"Course I do!" agreed Ocock. "And Melia, she'll come out to 'er daddy soon as ever th'ol' woman kicks the bucket.— Drat 'er! It's 'er I've got to thank for all the mischief."
"Well, well!" said Mahony, and rising knocked out his pipe on the log. Did his old neighbour once get launched on the subject of his wife's failings, there was no stopping him. "We all have our crosses."
"That I 'ave. And I'm keepin' you outer your bed, doc., with me blather. —By gum! and that reminds me I come 'ere special to see you to-night. Bin gettin' a bit moonstruck, I reckon,"—and he clapped on his hat.
Drawing a sheaf of papers from an inner pocket, he selected one and offered it to Mahony. Mahony led the way indoors, and lighting a kerosene-lamp stooped to decipher the letter.
For some weeks now he had been awaiting the delivery of a load of goods, the invoice for which had long since reached him. From this communication, carried by hand, he learnt that the drayman, having got bogged just beyond Bacchus's marsh, had decamped to the Ovens, taking with him all he could cram into a spring-cart, and disposing of the remainder for what he could get. The agent in Melbourne refused to be held responsible for the loss, and threatened to prosecute, if payment for the goods were not immediately forthcoming. Mahony, who here heard the first of the affair, was highly indignant at the tone of the letter; and before he had read to the end resolved to let everything else slide, and to leave for Melbourne early next morning.
Ocock backed him up in this decision, and with the aid of a great quill pen stiffly traced the address of his eldest son, who practised as a solicitor in the capital.
"Go you straight to 'Enry, doc. 'Enry'll see you through."
Brushing aside his dreams of a peaceful Sabbath Mahony made preparations for his journey. Waking his assistant, he gave the man—a stupid clodhopper, but honest and attached—instructions how to manage during his absence, then sent him to the township to order horses. Himself, he put on his hat and went out to look for Purdy.
His search led him through all the drunken revelry of a Saturday night. And it was close on twelve before, having followed the trace from bowling-alley to Chinese cook-shop, from the "Adelphi" to Mother Flannigan's and haunts still less reputable, he finally succeeded in catching his bird.
The two young men took to the road betimes: it still wanted some minutes to six on the new clock in the tower of Bath's Hotel, when they threw their legs over their saddles and rode down the steep slope by the Camp Reserve. The hoofs of the horses pounded the plank bridge that spanned the Yarrowee, and striking loose stones, and smacking and sucking in the mud, made a rude clatter in the Sunday quiet.
Having followed for a few hundred yards the wide, rut-riddled thoroughfare of Main Street, the riders branched off to cross rising ground. They proceeded in single file and at a footpace, for the highway had been honeycombed and rendered unsafe; it also ascended steadily. Just before they entered the bush, which was alive with the rich, strong whistling of magpies, Purdy halted to look back and wave his hat in farewell. Mahony also half-turned in the saddle. There it lay—the scattered, yet congested, unlovely wood and canvas settlement that was Ballarat. At this distance, and from this height, it resembled nothing so much as a collection of child's bricks, tossed out at random over the ground, the low, square huts and cabins that composed it being all of a shape and size. Some threads of smoke began to mount towards the immense pale dome of the sky. The sun was catching here the panes of a window, there the tin that encased a primitive chimney.
They rode on, leaving the warmth of the early sun-rays for the cold blue shadows of the bush. Neither broke the silence. Mahony's day had not come to an end with the finding of Purdy. Barely stretched on his palliasse he had been routed out to attend to Long Jim, who had missed his footing and pitched into a shaft. The poor old tipsy idiot hauled up—luckily for him it was a dry, shallow hole—there was a broken collar-bone to set. Mahony had installed him in his own bed, and had spent the remainder of the night dozing in a chair.
So now he was heavy-eyed, uncommunicative. As they climbed the shoulder and came to the rich, black soil that surrounded the ancient cone of Warrenheip, he mused on his personal relation to the place he had just left. And not for the first time he asked himself: what am I doing here? When he was absent from Ballarat, and could dispassionately consider the life he led there, he was so struck by the incongruity of the thing that, like the beldame in the nursery-tale, he could have pinched himself to see whether he waked or slept. Had anyone told him, three years previously, that the day was coming when he would weigh out soap and sugar, and hand them over a counter in exchange for money, he would have held the prophet ripe for Bedlam. Yet here he was, a full-blown tradesman, and as greedy of gain as any tallow-chandler. Extraordinary, aye, and distressing, too, the ease with which the human organism adapted itself; it was just a case of the green caterpillar on the green leaf. Well, he could console himself with the knowledge that his apparent submission was only an affair of the surface. He had struck no roots; and it would mean as little to his half-dozen acquaintances on Ballarat when he silently vanished from their midst, as it would to him if he never saw one of them again. Or the country either—and he let his eye roam unlovingly over the wild, sad-coloured landscape, with its skimpy, sad-coloured trees.
Meanwhile they were advancing: their nags' hoofs, beating in unison, devoured mile after mile of the road. It was a typical colonial road; it went up hill and down dale, turned aside for no obstacles. At one time it ran down a gully that was almost a ravine, to mount straight up the opposite side among boulders that reached to the belly-bands. At others, it led through a reedy swamp, or a stony watercourse; or it became a bog; or dived through a creek. Where the ground was flat and treeless, it was a rutty, well-worn track between two seas of pale, scant grass.
More than once, complaining of a mouth like sawdust, Purdy alighted and limped across the verandah of a house-of-accommodation; but they did not actually draw rein till, towards midday, they reached a knot of weatherboard verandahed stores, smithies and public-houses, arranged at the four Corners of two cross-roads. Here they made a substantial luncheon; and the odour of fried onions carried far and wide. Mahony paid his three shillings for a bottle of ale; but Purdy washed down the steak with cup after cup of richly sugared tea.
In the early afternoon they set off again, revived and refreshed. Purdy caught at a bunch of aromatic leaves and burst into a song; and Mahony. ... Good God! With a cloudless sky overhead, a decent bit of horseflesh between his knees, and the prospect of a three days' holiday from storekeeping, his name would not have been what it was if he had for long remained captious, downhearted. Insufficient sleep, and an empty stomach—nothing on earth besides! A fig for his black thoughts! The fact of his being obliged to spend a few years in the colony would, in the end, profit him, by widening his experience of the world and his fellow-men. It was possible to lead a sober, Godfearing life, no matter in what rude corner of the globe you were pitchforked.— And in this mood he was even willing to grant the landscape a certain charm. Since leaving Ballan the road had dipped up and down a succession of swelling rises, grass-grown and untimbered. From the top of these ridges the view was a far one: you looked straight across undulating waves of country and intervening forest-land, to where, on the horizon, a long, low sprawling range of hills lay blue—cobalt-blue, and painted in with a sure brush—against the porcelain-blue of the sky. What did the washed-out tints of the foliage matter, when, wherever you turned, you could count on getting these marvellous soft distances, on always finding a range of blue-veiled hills, lovely and intangible as a dream?
There was not much traffic to the diggings on a Sunday. And having come to a level bit of ground, the riders followed a joint impulse and broke into a canter. As they began to climb again they fell naturally into one of those familiar talks, full of allusion and reminiscence, that are only possible between two of a sex who have lived through part of their green days together.
It began by Purdy referring to the satisfactory fashion in which he had disposed of his tools, his stretcher-bed, and other effects: he was not travelling to Melbourne empty-handed.
Mahony rallied him. "You were always a good one at striking a bargain, my boy! What about: 'Four mivvies for an alley!'—eh, Dickybird?"
This related to their earliest meeting, and was a standing joke between them. Mahony could recall the incident as clearly as though it had happened yesterday: how the sturdy little apple-cheeked English boy, with the comical English accent, had suddenly bobbed up at his side on the way home from school, and in that laughable sing-song of his, without modulation or emphasis, had offered to "swop" him, as above.
Purdy laughed and paid him back in kind. "Yes, and the funk you were in for fear Spiny Tatlow 'ud see us, and peach to the rest!"
"Yes. What young idiots boys are!"
In thought he added: "And what snobs!" For the breach of convention—he was an upper-form boy at the time—had not been his sole reason for wishing to shake off his junior. Behind him, Mahony, when he reached home, closed the door of one of the largest houses in the most exclusive square in Dublin. Whereas Purdy lived in a small, common house in a side street. Visits there had to be paid surreptitiously.
All the same these were frequent—and for the best of reasons. Mahony could still see Purdy's plump, red-cheeked English mother, who was as jolly and happy as her boy, hugging the loaf to her bosom while she cut round after round of bread and butter and jam, for two cormorant throats. And the elder boy, long-limbed and lank, all wrist and ankle, had invariably been the hungrier of the two; for, on the glossy damask of the big house, often not enough food was set to satisfy the growing appetites of himself and his sisters.—"Dickybird, can't you see us, with our backs to the wall, in that little yard of yours, trying who could take the biggest bite?—or going round the outside: 'Crust first, and though you burst, By the bones of Davy Jones!' till only a little island of jam was left?"
Purdy laughed heartily at these and other incidents fished up by his friend from the well of the years; but he did not take part in the sport himself. He had not Mahony's gift for recalling detail: to him past was past. He only became alive and eager when the talk turned, as it soon did, on his immediate prospects.
This time, to his astonishment, Mahony had had no trouble in persuading Purdy to quit the diggings. In addition, here was the boy now declaring openly that what he needed, and must have, was a fixed and steadily paying job. With this decision Mahony was in warm agreement, and promised all the help that lay in his power.
But Purdy was not done; he hummed and hawed and fidgeted; he took off his hat and looked inside it; he wiped his forehead and the nape of his neck.
Mahony knew the symptoms. "Come, Dickybird. Spit it out, my boy!"
"Yes ... er.... Well, the fact is, Dick, I begin to think it's time I settled down."
Mahony gave a whistle. "Whew! A lady in the case?"
"That's the chat. Just oblige yours truly by takin' a squint at this, will you?"
He handed his friend a squarely-folded sheet of thinnest blue paper, with a large purple stamp in one corner, and a red seal on the back. Opening it Mahony discovered three crossed pages, written in a delicately pointed, minute, Italian hand.
He read the letter to the end, deliberately, and with a growing sense of relief: composition, expression and penmanship, all met with his approval. "This is the writing of a person of some refinement, my son."
"Well, er ... yes," said Purdy. He seemed about to add a further word, then swallowed it, and went on: "Though, somehow or other, Till's different to herself, on paper. But she's the best of girls, Dick. Not one o' your ethereal, die-away, bread-and-butter misses. There's something OF Till there is, and she's always on for a lark. I never met such girls for larks as her and 'er sister. The very last time I was there, they took and hung up ... me and some other fellers had been stoppin' up a bit late the night before, and kickin' up a bit of a shindy, and what did those girls do? They got the barman to come into my room while I was asleep, and hang a bucket o' water to one of the beams over the bed. Then I'm blamed if they didn't tie a string from it to my big toe! I gives a kick, down comes the bucket and half drowns me.— Gosh, how those girls did laugh!"
"H'm!" said Mahony dubiously; while Purdy in his turn chewed the cud of a pleasant memory.—"Well, I for my part should be glad to see you married and settled, with a good wife always beside you."
"That's just the rub," said Purdy, and vigorously scratched his head.
"Till's a first-class girl as a sweetheart and all that; but when I come to think of puttin' my head in the noose, from now till doomsday—why then, somehow, I can't bring myself to pop the question."
"There's going to be no trifling with the girl's feelings, I hope, sir?"
"Bosh! But I say, Dick, I wish you'd turn your peepers on 'er and tell me what you make of 'er. She's A1 'erself, but she's got a mother.... By Job, Dick, if I thought Tilly 'ud ever get like that ... and they're exactly the same build, too."
It would certainly be well for him to inspect Purdy's flame, thought Mahony. Especially since the anecdote told did not bear out the good impression left by the letter—went far, indeed, to efface it. Still, he was loath to extend his absence by spending a night at Geelong, where, a, it came out, the lady lived; and he replied evasively that it must depend on the speed with which he could put through his business in Melbourne.
Purdy was silent for a time. Then, with a side-glance at his companion, he volunteered: "I say, Dick, I know some one who'd suit you."
"The deuce you do!" said Mahony, and burst out laughing. "Miss Tilly's sister, no doubt?"
"No, no—not her. Jinn's all right, but she's not your sort. But they've got a girl living with 'em—a sort o' poor relation, or something—and she's a horse of quite another colour.—I say, old man, serious now, have you never thought o' gettin' spliced?"
Again Mahony laughed. At his companion's words there descended to him, once more, from some shadowy distance, some pure height, the rose-tinted vision of the wife-to-be which haunts every man's youth. And, in ludicrous juxtaposition, he saw the women, the only women he had encountered since coming to the colony: the hardworking, careworn wives of diggers; the harridans, sluts and prostitutes who made up the balance.
He declined to be drawn. "Is it old Moll Flannigan or one of her darlints you'd be wishing me luck to, ye spalpeen?"
"Man, don't I say I've FOUND the wife for you?" Purdy was not jesting, and did not join in the fresh salvo of laughter with which Mahony greeted his words. "Oh, blow it, Dick, you're too fastidious—too damned particular! Say what you like, there's good in all of 'em—even in old Mother Flannigan 'erself—and 'specially when she's got a drop inside 'er. Fuddle old Moll a bit, and she'd give you the very shift off her back.—Don't I thank the Lord, that's all, I'm not built like you! Why, the woman isn't born I can't get on with. All's fish that comes to my net.—Oh, to be young, Dick, and to love the girls! To see their little waists, and their shoulders, and the dimples in their cheeks! See 'em put up their hands to their bonnets, and how their little feet peep out when the wind blows their petticoats against their legs!" and Purdy rose in his stirrups and stretched himself, in an excess of wellbeing.
"You young reprobate!"
"Bah!—you! You've got water in your veins."
"Nothing of the sort! Set me among decent women and there's no company I enjoy more," declared Mahony.
"Fish-blood, fish-blood!—Dick, it's my belief you were born old."
Mahony was still young enough to be nettled by doubts cast on his vitality. Purdy laughed in his sleeve. Aloud he said: "Well, look here, old man, I'll lay you a wager. I bet you you're not game, when you see that tulip I've been tellin' you about, to take her in your arms and kiss her. A fiver on it!"
"Done!" cried Mahony. "And I'll have it in one note, if you please!"
"Bravo!" cried Purdy. "Bravo, Dick!" And having gained his end, and being on a good piece of road between post-and-rail fences, he set spurs to his horse and cantered off, singing as he went:
SHE WHEELS A WHEELBARROW, THROUGH STREETS WIDE AND NARROW, CRYING COCKLES, AND MUSSELS, ALIVE, ALIVE-OH!
But the sun was growing large in the western sky; on the ground to the left, their failing shadows slanted out lengthwise; those cast by the horses' bodies were mounted on high spindle-legs. The two men ceased their trifling, and nudged by the fall of day began to ride at a more business-like pace, pushing forward through the deep basin of Bacchus's marsh, and on for miles over wide, treeless plains, to where the road was joined by the main highway from the north, coming down from Mount Alexander and the Bendigo. Another hour, and from a gentle eminence the buildings of Melbourne were visible, the mastheads of the many vessels riding at anchor in Hobson's Bay. Here, too, the briny scent of the sea, carrying up over grassy flats, met their nostrils, and set Mahony hungrily sniffing. The brief twilight came and went, and it was already night when they urged their weary beasts over the Moonee ponds, a winding chain of brackish waterholes. The horses shambled along the broad, hilly tracks of North Melbourne; warily picked their steps through the city itself. Dingy oil-lamps, set here and there at the corners of roads so broad that you could hardly see across them, shed but a meagre light, and the further the riders advanced, the more difficult became their passage: the streets, in process of laying, were heaped with stones and intersected by trenches. Finally, dismounting, they thrust their arms through their bridles, and laboriously covered the last half-mile of the journey on foot. Having lodged the horses at a livery-stable, they repaired to a hotel in Little Collins Street. Here Purdy knew the proprietor, and they were fortunate enough to secure a small room for the use of themselves alone.
Melbourne is built on two hills and the valley that lies between.
It was over a year since Mahony or Purdy had been last in the capital, and next morning, on stepping out of the "Adam and Eve," they walked up the eastern slope to look about them. From the summit of the hill their view stretched to the waters of the Bay, and its forest of masts. The nearer foreground was made up of mud flats, through which a sluggish, coffee-coloured river wound its way to the sea. On the horizon to the north, the Dandenong Ranges rose storm-blue and distinct, and seemed momently to be drawing nearer; for a cold wind was blowing, which promised rain. The friends caught their glimpses of the landscape between dense clouds of white dust, which blotted everything out for minutes at a time, and filled eyes, nose, ears with a gritty powder.
Tiring of this they turned and descended Great Collins Street—a spacious thoroughfare that dipped into the hollow and rose again, and was so long that on its western height pedestrians looked no bigger than ants. In the heart of the city men were everywhere at work, laying gas and drain-pipes, macadamising, paving, kerbing: no longer would the old wives' tale be credited of the infant drowned in the deeps of Swanston Street, or of the bullock which sank, inch by inch, before its owner's eyes in the Elizabeth Street bog. Massive erections of freestone were going up alongside here a primitive, canvas-fronted dwelling, there one formed wholly of galvanised iron. Fashionable shops, two storeys high, stood next tiny, dilapidated weatherboards. In the roadway, handsome chaises, landaus, four-in-hands made room for bullock-teams, eight and ten strong; for tumbrils carrying water or refuse—or worse; for droves of cattle, mobs of wild colts bound for auction, flocks of sheep on their way to be boiled down for tallow. Stock-riders and bull-punchers rubbed shoulders with elegants in skirted coats and shepherd's plaid trousers, who adroitly skipped heaps of stones and mortar, or crept along the narrow edging of kerb.
The visitors from up-country paused to listen to a brass band that played outside a horse-auction mart; to watch the shooting in a rifle-gallery. The many decently attired females they met also called for notice. Not a year ago, and no reputable woman walked abroad oftener than she could help: now, even at this hour, the streets were starred with them. Purdy, open-mouthed, his eyes a-dance, turned his head this way and that, pointed and exclaimed. But then HE had slept like a log, and felt in his own words "as fit as a fiddle." Whereas Mahony had sat his horse the whole night through, had never ceased to balance himself in an imaginary saddle. And when at daybreak he had fallen into a deeper sleep, he was either reviewing outrageous females on Purdy's behalf, or accepting wagers to kiss them.
Hence, diverting as were the sights of the city, he did not come to them with the naive receptivity of Purdy. It was, besides, hard to detach his thoughts from the disagreeable affair that had brought him to Melbourne. And as soon as banks and offices began to take down their shutters, he hurried off to his interview with the carrying-agent.
The latter's place of business was behind Great Collins Street, in a lane reached by a turnpike. Found with some trouble, it proved to be a rude shanty wedged in between a Chinese laundry and a Chinese eating-house. The entrance was through a yard in which stood a collection of rabbit-hutches, while further back gaped a dirty closet. At the sound of their steps the man they sought emerged, and Mahony could not repress an exclamation of surprise. When, a little over a twelvemonth ago, he had first had dealings with him, this Bolliver had been an alert and respectable man of business. Now he was evidently on the downgrade; and the cause of the deterioration was advertised in his bloodshot eyeballs and veinous cheeks. Early as was the hour, he had already been indulging: his breath puffed sour. Mahony prepared to state the object of his visit in no uncertain terms. But his preliminaries were cut short by a volley of abuse. The man accused him point-blank of having been privy to the rascally drayman's fraud and of having hoped, by lying low, to evade his liability. Mahony lost his temper, and vowed that he would have Bolliver up for defamation of character. To which the latter retorted that the first innings in a court of law would be his: he had already put the matter in the hands of his attorney. This was the last straw. Purdy had to intervene and get Mahony away. They left the agent shaking his fist after them and cursing the bloody day on which he'd ever been fool enough to do a deal with a bloody gentleman.
At the corner of the street the friends paused for a hasty conference. Mahony was for marching off to take the best legal advice the city had to offer. But Purdy disapproved. Why put himself to so much trouble, when he had old Ocock's recommendation to his lawyer-son in his coat pocket? What, in the name of Leary-cum-Fitz, was the sense of making an enemy for life of the old man, his next-door neighbour, and a good customer to boot?
These counsels prevailed, and they turned their steps towards Chancery Lane, where was to be found every variety of legal practitioner from barrister to scrivener. Having matched the house-number and descried the words: "Mr. Henry Ocock, Conveyancer and Attorney, Commissioner of Affidavits," painted black on two dusty windows, they climbed a wooden stair festooned with cobwebs, to a landing where an injunction to: "Push and Enter!" was, rudely inked on a sheet of paper and affixed to a door.
Obeying, they passed into a dingy little room, the entire furnishing of which consisted of a couple of deal tables, with a chair to each. These were occupied by a young man and a boy, neither of whom rose at their entrance. The lad was cutting notches in a stick and whistling tunefully; the clerk, a young fellow in the early twenties, who had a mop of flaming red hair and small-slit white-lashed eyes, looked at the strangers, but without lifting his head: his eyes performed the necessary motion.
Mahony desired to know if he had the pleasure of addressing Mr. Henry Ocock. In reply the red-head gave a noiseless laugh, which he immediately quenched by clapping his hand over his mouth, and shutting one eye at his junior said: "No—nor yet the Shar o' Persia, nor Alphybetical Foster!—What can I do for you, governor?"
"You can have the goodness to inform Mr. Ocock that I wish to see him!" flashed back Mahony.
"Singin' til-ril-i-tum-tum-dee-ay!—Now then, Mike, me child, toddle!"
With patent reluctance the boy ceased his whittling, and dawdled across the room to an inner door through which he vanished, having first let his knuckles bump, as if by chance, against the wood of the panel. A second later he reappeared. "Boss's engaged." But Mahony surprised a lightning sign between the pair.
"No, sir, I decline to state my business to anyone but Mr. Ocock himself!" he declared hotly, in response to the red-haired man's invitation to "get it off his chest." "If you choose to find out when he will be at liberty, I will wait so long—no longer."
As the office-boy had somehow failed to hit his seat on his passage to the outer door, there was nothing left for the clerk to do but himself to undertake the errand. He lounged up from his chair, and, in his case without even the semblance of a knock, squeezed through a foot wide aperture, in such a fashion that the two strangers should not catch a glimpse of what was going on inside. But his voice came to them through the thin partition. "Oh, just a couple o' stony-broke Paddylanders." Mahony, who had seized the opportunity to dart an angry glance at Purdy, which should say: "This is what one gets by coming to your second-rate pettifoggers!" now let his eyes rest on his friend and critically detailed the latter's appearance. The description fitted to a nicety. Purdy did in truth look down on his luck. Unkempt, bearded to the eyes, there he stood clutching his shapeless old cabbage-tree, in mud-stained jumper and threadbare smalls—the very spit of the unsuccessful digger. Well might they be suspected of not owning the necessary to pay their way!
"All serene, mister! The boss'ull take you on."
The sanctum was a trifle larger than the outer room, but almost equally bare; half-a-dozen deed-boxes were piled up in one corner. Stalking in with his chin in the air, Mahony found himself in the presence of a man of his own age, who sat absorbed in the study of a document. At their entry two beady grey eyes lifted to take a brief but thorough survey, and a hand with a pencil in it pointed to the single empty chair. Mahony declined to translate the gesture and remained standing.
Under the best of circumstances it irked him to be kept waiting. Here, following on the clerk's saucy familiarity, the wilful delay made his gorge rise. For a few seconds he fumed in silence; then, his patience exhausted, he burst out: "My time, sir, is as precious as your own. With your permission, I will take my business elsewhere."
At these words, and at the tone in which they were spoken, the lawyer's head shot up as if he had received a blow under the chin. Again he narrowed his eyes at the couple. And this time he laid the document from him and asked suavely: "What can I do for you?"
The change in his manner though slight was unmistakable. Mahony had a nice ear for such refinements, and responded to the shade of difference with the promptness of one who had been on the watch for it. His irritation fell; he was ready on the instant to be propitiated. Putting his hat aside he sat down, and having introduced himself, made reference to Ballarat and his acquaintance with the lawyer's father: "Who directed me to you, sir, for advice on a vexatious affair, in which I have had the misfortune to become involved."
With a "Pray be seated!" Ocock rose and cleared a chair for Purdy. Resuming his seat he joined his hands, and wound them in and out. "I think you may take it from me that no case is so unpromising but what we shall be able to find a loophole."
Mahony thanked him—with a touch of reserve. "I trust you will still be of that opinion when you have heard the facts." And went on: "Myself, I do not doubt it. I am not a rich man, but serious though the monetary loss would be to me, I should settle the matter out of court, were I not positive that I had right on my side." To which Ocock returned a quick: "Oh, quite so ... of course."
Like his old father, he was a short, heavily built man; but there the likeness ended. He had a high, domed forehead, above a thin, hooked nose. His skin was of an almost Jewish pallor. Fringes of straight, jet-black hair grew down the walls of his cheeks and round his chin, meeting beneath it. The shaven upper lid was long and flat, with no central markings, and helped to form a mouth that had not much more shape or expression than a slit cut by a knife in a sheet of paper. The chin was bare to the size of a crown-piece; and, both while he spoke and while he listened to others speaking, the lawyer caressed this patch with his finger-tips; so that in the course of time it had arrived at a state of high polish—like the shell of an egg.
The air with which he heard his new client out was of a non-committal kind; and Mahony, having talked his first heat off, grew chilled by the wet blanket of Ocock's silence. There was nothing in this of the frank responsiveness with which your ordinary mortal lends his ear. The brain behind the dome was, one might be sure, adding, combining, comparing, and drawing its own conclusions. Why should lawyers, he wondered, treat those who came to them like children, advancing only in so far as it suited them out of the darkness where they housed among strangely worded paragraphs and obscure formulas?—But these musings were cut short. Having fondled his chin for a further moment, Ocock looked up and put a question. And, while he could not but admire the lawyer's acumen, this did not lessen Mahony's discomfort. All unguided, it went straight for what he believed to be the one weak spot in his armour. It related to the drayman. Contrary to custom Mahony had, on this occasion, himself recommended the driver. And, as he admitted it, his ears rang again with the plaints of his stranded fellow-countryman, a wheedler from the South Country, off whose tongue the familiar brogue had dripped like honey. His recommendation, he explained, had been made out of charity; he had not forced the agent to engage the man; and it would surely be a gross injustice if he alone were to be held responsible.
To his relief Ocock did not seem to attach importance to the fact, but went on to ask whether any written agreement had existed between the parties. "No writing? H'm! So ... so!" To read his thoughts was an impossibility; but as he proceeded with his catechism it was easy to see how his interest in the case grew. He began to treat it tenderly; warmed to it, as an artist to his work; and Mahony's spirits rose in consequence.