Chapter XII

“What care I for hardship or toil.
What reck I for hunger or cold?
I'm not fearful my fingers to soil,
So, Hurrah for the Ophir of gold.”


Every mile that Gilbert traversed led him further from the scene of his late adventures, and made him feel more at ease; for although, like the Australian youths generally, he held danger in scorn, and rather courted than shunned it, he had a sense of uneasiness in having infringed laws which might prove more formidable than infuriated cattle, or wild blacks: he had taken the precaution to conceal, in part, his name; and as he had two Christian names, he was now known as Gilbert St. Just.

The weather was particularly hot and dry, and in consequence the dry dust rose in clouds round the weary feet of the bullocks, which hung their heads, the picture of sad fatigue. Gilbert's new crimson guernsey had assumed the prevailing dust-colour, and his head might have passed muster among a group of New Zealanders; indeed, by the time they had left the region of roads, and were at liberty to choose their own course, it would have been difficult to detect that the young man who drove the leading dray was not at his fitting occupation—cracking his whip and hoarsely shouting at his sluggish

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team; or checking the creaking of the wheels by an application of tar and grease from the horn hanging behind the dray; but it was towards evening, when the time for unyoking came, that the pleasures of the weary day commenced; then the “leaders” having had a bell suspended round their necks, the wanderer's feet secured by hobbles, all were turned free, to seek a meal from the long dry grass. The drays had been drawn either near a water-hole, or to some convenient spot, for the “stopping-places” were all familiar to Johann, who had been journeys on these roads for some years.

It was at this desired hour that the travellers drew up to the banks of a pond and unyoked their teams, and soon a slender column of smoke ascended, and the black tin can of tea was simmering beside the blaze. The day had been excessively sultry, and the western horizon was a deep fiery red, lined and spotted by thunder-clouds, while distant peals muttered round the mountains. Gilbert had thrown himself down upon the sward, and was awaiting the boiling of the tea; the damper and boef lay near him, and the quick cropping of the grass by many hungry cattle, the jingling of the bells, and the occasional low, or cough, with Johann's German song, and the shouts of drivers at a distance, hastening to reach the stopping-place before the premature darkness closed in, all formed a scene of wild freedom, becoming the bivouac of a tribe of Bedouin Arabs in the desert. Thoughts of his sister and the home circle, and of Clare Welton, stole over Gilbert, and a half despairing “When shall I see them again?—what good shall I ever do?” almost passed his lips; at that moment several of the coming drays appeared, and preceding them, some travellers with their blankets and provisions slung over their shoulders. The sight of the crackling fire drew them to Gilbert's side, with a frank “Good evening, mate; can I boil my pot at your fire?” Hospitality is a proverbial Australian virtue, and the honours of the encampment were duly done.

The new comers were equipped for the diggings; both were fine men, in the prime of life; one about thirty, the other nearly forty years of age.

“Fancy, Bain, what our friends at home would think if they saw us now,” remarked the younger, steadying the quart pot of water amongst the fire-brands, and guarding his eyes with the other hand from the smoke.

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“I have no friends to think about me, and where do you call ‘at home?’ ” demanded the other, an almost fierce expression springing up in his deep grey eyes.

“Britain, of course—the old country. You're not going to deny that, surely?”

“No, never.” The emphasis was sufficiently strong to satisfy his patriotic companion of Bain's loyalty to the fatherland, and he began to complain of the muddy water, in which about forty thirsty oxen trampling and splashing had not tended to improve.

“You grow fastidious, Bunyip,” retorted Bain. This apocryphal appellation had been bestowed upon Phillip Ducie from his having a tendency to the marvellous, and he brushed back his long light moustache, the better to emit a hearty laugh.

The language and manners of the wanderers had acquainted Gilbert with their belonging to a higher class than their dress and position indicated, and he broke out in a Latin aphorism, one of the stray school lessons not yet forgotten. Bain turned quickly, and pursued the quotation.

“Classic ground,” cried the Bunyip, in mirthful mockery: “a touchstone we do not often meet with, Bain. Well, friend, you, like us, are a sort of prince incog., as the romance hath it.”

“No, not a prince—a native.” All joined in the gay laugh.

What a strange trio they were!—travel-worn, rough, unshaven: stirring their pannikins of tea with bits of twigs picked up from the turf, and dividing their damper with large horn-handled clasp-knives. Johann joined them, and several bullock drivers, and they became again a part of “the people,” smoking short black pipes, and discussing beef and diggers' luck with the others; but when one after the other gave unmistakeable tokens of oblivion in heavy nasal discord, Bain turned to Gilbert, inquiring in French if he was disposed for conversation.

“Yes, but not in French; that's a stroke beyond me.”

“Then we will withdraw a little further from the canaille.”

“They are asleep.”

“ ‘Stone walls have ears.’—There, under that tree let us seat ourselves; we do not need the warmth of the fire, and the lightning is a more congenial torch to me.”

“As you will.” They removed to the spot indicated.

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“Are you on your way to the gold-fields?” abruptly demanded the stranger.

“After I get the dray up.”

“We are bound for Ophir. Will you throw in your lot with us. Our party is rather small—only Mr. Ducie and myself.”

“Both highly respectable gentlemen,” put in the Bunyip.

“Bah! who will decide in what the qualifications of a highly respectable gentleman consist?—both working hands—that is more to the purpose.”

“I am by myself.”

“So I conclude—one who has quarrelled with fortune, or fortune with yoo—widely different sources flowing into the same stream.”

“Yes—a fortune-seeker, with all my wealth in a size that will go in my pocket and that blue cotton handkerchief on the dray.”

“None the worse friend. Ducie and I met by chance on the Barwan; volunteered our services to join a party about to push out and take up a new squattage; had some brushes with the blacks—lost our leader by the effect of a spear wound; self had to take his official place, and, after a year's service as assistants to his brother and heir, wearied of loafing, and started on a pedestrian tour, which ultimately brought us here. Antecedents are, of course, irrelevant to the due signing and sealing of the trifold partnership contemplated.”

The explanation satisfied Gilbert, and elicited one equally vague.

“We will proceed to the Ophir at once, and you will join us as soon as possible.”

“Yes. May not I have a difficulty in finding you?”

“Well thought of.” He mused; then unwinding a red scarf from his waist, said, “I will tie this to a poll above our tent roof; that will be your land-mark.” He extended his hand, and grasped the young man's firmly; then Mr. Ducie did the same, and they returned to the fire—Gilbert and the Bunyip to sleep, the other to bury his face in his hands, and think. The early part of his life—he never, however distantly, alluded to it—had left lines and writings on his handsome features; torrid suns had browned his skin, and fatigues, hardships, and, perhaps, mental disquiet, were mingling silver threads through his black locks: the man had evidently a wild, romantic, and even

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dark history hanging to him, but it was buried in unbroken reserve; for none was the veil lifted, or the key of the blue chamber turned.

Mr. Ducie was simply one who had emigrated to Australia in search of fortune; had wandered through her solitudes, grown skilful in her bush lore, and, after some ten years, finding no tangible results, was about to try her golden resources; talkative, open, and prone to exaggerate, Gilbert was soon in possession of his history, and relationships, from “my uncle the Bishop” to “my great-grandmother the Lady Mary,” together with his own adventures, garnished by sundry hair-breadth escapes and “moving accidents by flood and field,” which suggested the Thousand and One Nights.

Though all appeared fair and promising, Gilbert was far from happy;—“he only is truly happy who is at peace with himself and his God;” and the young man was neither. Thoughtless hilarity might conceal, but could not remove, that sting which unfulfilled duties and disregarded claims of Heaven implant; and he yearned for right, as thousands do, and yet followed evil: shrinking from probing the chronic wound—drowning reflection in tumultuous exertion or pleasure, till the grave opens her cold pale lips to receive him, while Revelation and nature join in the cry so finely breathed by Mackay, when he exclaims—

“Behold the heavenly light, and climb!
Look up, O tenant of the cell,
Where man, the prisoner, must dwell!
To every dungeon comes a ray
Of God's interminable day.
On every heart a sunbeam falls,
To cheer its lonely prison walls.
The ray is Truth. Oh soul! aspire
To bask in its celestial fire;
So shalt thou quit the glooms of clay,
So shalt thou flourish into day.”

The muttering thunder drew near, and broke out in long, low peals; huge rain-drops fell, and the sleepers started to their feet, and hurriedly sought the shelter afforded beneath the drays; the cattle withdrew to some neighbouring clusters of trees; the oppressive heat of the autumnal day closed in one of those tropical rains which cause such unlooked-for floods, and suddenly change the face of the country, by connecting muddy pools, and turning them into rivers.