Chapter XIV

“'Tis gold, 'tis gold! The craggy steeps,
The torrent, tumbling down
The wild ravine—the shatter'd heaps
Around in fragments thrown—
The pathless plain, whose verdant sod,
Alone, the naked savage trod,
With golden seeds are sown.”

—W. F.

The sun was rising, casting from heaven to earth a flood of light, like the smile of Hope through the portals of Mercy; the heavy fogs rolled back, and hung awhile above the high tops of the basaltic hills, and then grandly sailed away to curtain for a brief space the Conobalas mountains. The encampment of diggers, lately hushed in sleep, already gave signs of returning animation; little columns of smoke rose before the

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tents, and men's voices and the barking of dogs grew from occasional to a full chorus.

High hills closed in abruptly upon the bed of the creek; the greater part of the diggers were at some distance, and while the sun illumined them, one lonely tent was still shadowed, as it rested in the bosom of the hills. Canvas had been spread over three poles, united at the top; the addition of a scarlet blanket on the weather side gave warmth to the colouring; here also there were signs of activity: the black kettle stood upon the few branches piled up, and recently ignited; the shovels and picks, the cradle and dishes, lay round; and, while one man held a frying-pan above the flame, another at the water's edge laved his face. Just then a loud, clear whistle sounded upon the heights above, and by a devious and steep descent the signalizer reached them.

“What luck, Bain?” said the cook.

“But little, St. Just;” and the prospecter displayed a few specks of gold, as he flung his shovel and dish on the ground. Ducie joined them, glowing with his recent ablution, and with his hair set on end in a manner that imparted a fierce air to his whisker-fringed countenance.

“I grow weary of this,” abruptly remarked Gilbert, as they sat round the frying-pan and kettle, which served in the double capacities of dish and urn.

“You have small perseverance, friend. This life suits me—free, wild, picturesque; with sufficient excitement to prevent the mind stagnating—away from the world, the hollow world of shows and pretences, where your dear friends are your dearer enemies, and, from young to old, all is self, self—‘let me prosper, you may go to ruin.’ ”

“We know your opinion of the world, Bain. St. Just and I take a milder view of the subject. The fact is, life is what we make it: hatred begets hatred, and he who carries a sword will not want for wounds.”

“Bravo! we shall see the Bunyip in print yet.”

“You may sneer, but your own experience teaches you that I am right.”

“What would you have, St. Just—a change of occupation or place?”

“The latter first; perhaps, afterwards, the other. We make little here—just support ourselves. I care as little for luxuries

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as you do, but this is simplicity run wild;—without the change, the exercise, or pleasures of the squatter's life—grovelling for gold which we do not get.” Gilbert spoke bitterly, for his heart was ill at ease, and the loving faces, tear-wet for him, haunted him, and the frown of a disregarded God overshadowed him.

“Licensing day approaches. Happily we are so nearly related to the Helix that we can carry our house with us. I am willing to move up or down the creek—to push on to Summer Hill or the Turon—wherever it pleases you; but not into the thick of the miners.”

“Nor I. Shall we change, Ducie?”

“Let us consult the paper, and see how the run of luck points.”


“Agreed.—And so, Gilbert, you are craving for gold—to be rich—to buy the favour of the million! What then, boy? If you see them round your feet, is that homage?—Are they not worshipping the golden calf, and you as its priest? Remove out of the golden reflection, and where are the worshippers? St. Just, you are ignorant of the world, or you would despise it.”

“Despise its pretences;—but it is the work of God, and His image can be found traced upon some souls, which redeem the rest.” The home faces rose up before him, and stirred him to the heart's core.

“Bain is in one of his misanthropical moods this morning. Take no notice of him, St. Just. He may scorn wealth, but he knows its worth—but who comes here?” The discussion was interrupted by the approach of a man, leading a horse loaded by a pack, enveloped in a 'possum-skin cloak. He was an ill-looking fellow, sallow and unwashed, with one cyclid drooping from the effects of a recent blow, which still lowered in green and livid tints above his brow.

The tent was erected upon a flat rock, immediately above the water, which flowed some feet below it; and behind, the masses of trap and quartz rock were piled in disordered ridges, half-hidden among the long grass and tangled clumps of bushes; the approach, therefore, was difficult, and the wretched old horse, a moving anatomical exhibition, struggled up to the level with apparent effort, urged on by probes from the stick his driver carried.

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Suspicion, ever alive in the proximity of a gold-field, prompted the three miners to rise to their feet.

“Good morning, gentle'am.”

“Good morning—you come early; what do you want?”

The stranger eyed Bain, who had been the speaker, and then drew out his pipe and a fig of tobacco, and asked permission to light it at the fire.

“You climbed that mass of rocks, I suppose, to light a pipe,” retorted he, ironically: the bitter humour of the morning had not departed.

“No, not ‘xactly,” drawled the man, and, stepping to his quadruped companion, he removed the opossum-skin rug, revealing a cask. “Have a drop—good—real thing—stuff to put life into a man.”

“Sly grog-selling! Begone with you!” sternly responded Bain.

“Perhaps t'other gentle'am feels dry,” suggested the visitor.

“The other ‘gentle'am’ don't deal at your keg,” returned the Bunyip, while his friend recommended the man's speedy departure, or he would assist him over the rocks, and his wares after him. Thus abjured, the illicit trader applied his stick to the tanned hide of the old horse, and retraced his steps to more jovial quarters.

“A nice specimen of the race homo, whose virtues we were just discussing. What do you say to fraternizing with that scoundrel?”

“I have no wish to fraternize with him, Bain; but that man's crimes do not taint the whole world, nor lessen the tie which a common humanity throws about us; but I cannot argue the subject with you; I never was a good speaker.”

“It is time we were at work. St. Just, will you go for the paper?”

Gilbert complied, and started on his walk with a sorrowful heart. If the past could have been undone, he would have taken his place at Ralph and Brett's desk; but it could not. Repentance too often tarries till the drawbridge is uplifted, and the backward way severed;—we do not pause to think what our feelings will be in the future—how that act will look in retrospect.

The stir of busy life was all the more striking after the lonely, shady dell he had just left; he paused sometimes to

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watch the result of a cradle-full of earth being washed, or to hear the news from other parts of the creek, the valley, or Turon. At length he reached the store where the journal was sold, and before which were posted huge bills announcing that fact.

The news was not such as to induce the miners to remove: the “fields” were dull and unproductive just then, and during Gilbert's absence his partners had discovered some ounces of gold, which inspired hopes of their being in the neighbourhood of a rich deposit, and the paper was laid aside for perusal in the evening, and shovels and picks played an active part. Evening found them in high spirits: they had made more in that one day than during the previous weeks of toil, and when the sun went down in castellated clouds of burnished gold and purple, they gathered round their fire to chat, and partake of a roughly-cooked supper.

“On the strength of this luck, mates, I think we may take on a cook,” proposed the Bunyip, stretching himself upon the scanty sod.

“Wait awhile: we are not rich enough for that yet, Ducie, unless we can find a cooking apparatus altogether self-providing, and I think such a one has not been patented yet. What a splendid evening, St. Just! Do you see how the clouds that have hung about all day roll back, as if to shed upon earth a last and brightest ray of the setting sun, like the triumph of a departing spirit, bidding adieu to earth for ever, yet casting a look of love upon it! That burnished spot shines out upon us like the very portals of a better world, and the everlasting hills lie in such sombre shade around us.” He sank into silence, with his eyes fixed upon the fading clouds, till that ashy hue so like death took the place of the warm rose tints; and then he brought from the tent his flute, and poured out rich, mellow strains—now soft, low, and tender as the voice of love—now wild and exulting as the song of triumph. His companions listened in breathless silence; it was not a strain to be pronounced pretty or fine—its praise must be wordless; and Bain had laid down his instrument some time before conversation was resumed.

Darkness gathered around, while the younger men built airy castles on that day's success, and which Bain by one cold ironical tone levelled to the ground, when suddenly a call was heard

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upon the hill-side, and, before they could respond or interrogate, a scuffling sound announced that the person had lost his footing, and was descending the dangerous masses of rock with a run. No time for rendering assistance elapsed before the intruder rolled among them, striking Gilbert's shoulder with a fowling-piece, and narrowly escaping being shot by Ducie's revolver, he being under the impression that it was an attack made by robbers.

“Hold, hold! would you murder me?” shouted the invader, struggling to his feet as the Bunyip's bullets rattled against the rock behind him, scattering splinters of granite among them.

“Who are you?” demanded Bain, who never lost presence of mind, but, on the contrary, appeared in his natural element in danger.

“A naturalist. What became of my case and gun? How came you to set yourselves down in this den, decoying unwary people by your fire-light? It's a wonder I had not broken every bone.” And he passed his hands over his limbs, to ascertain their condition.

“You have reason to rejoice that I did not hit you,” remarked Ducie.

“And accept my thanks for the bruised shoulder you gave me, by way of greeting,” added Gilbert.

The stranger expressed his regret, and as he had no appearance of being a bandit, and was one to three, with a bent fowling-piece, and they well armed, they did not hesitate to offer him a resting-place and some refreshment, which was as cordially accepted.

“Poverty makes us acquainted with strange bed-fellows—and gold also, apparently,” he said, cheerfully, as he partook of their hospitality. “Though your encampment nearly proved fatal to me, with your permission, I will relate to you my history, which will, I hope, prove that I am not worthy of this gentleman's bullets.”

“By all means: we have no books here; an oral biography will be quite a treat,” returned Ducie.

“If it were composed of striking incidents, but mine is not. I was apprenticed to a gunsmith, and, by that means, became acquainted with fire-arms; but my natural taste led me to study. My position had been selected by an old aunt,

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for I was an orphan, and the poor old woman had a great horror of brats of boys; and when, at rare intervals, I did visit her, I played such pranks that her aversion was strengthened; but, however, I was apprenticed, poorly clothed, and allowed sixpence a quarter pocket-money. I became possessed of an old flute, and after driving every person half-distracted in practising, I learnt to play rather well, and used to steal out of an evening to serenade certain windows, from which I had found silver showers descended; by this means I was enabled to purchase books, and devoted my brief leisure to the study of the sciences relating to natural objects. Through various means I became known to gentlemen of similar tastes; was admitted to museums and collections, and learnt to cure and set up skins; and finally, I was employed by several amateur collectors to visit Australia and the Islands, and get specimens, which I remit to them. All that I have at present is in that tin case there, which had so narrow an escape of plunging into the creek, where I should certainly have followed it, for it contains a new beetle, one, I am sure, is yet unnamed, and which I intend for Lord——.”

“And may I inquire if it is a specimen of that biped vulgarly-called man, which you were purposing to transfix on the gold-fields?”

“Why no, Mr. Bain, not exactly; though there are some queer specimens; but as I keep a journal of my proceedings, which I hope to have published, I wished to gather materials for a Chapter upon the Diggings. My name is Frank Maclean.”

A warm invitation to share their tent, &c., during his stay at Ophir, was given, and the Collector was thenceforth added to the party, occasionally working with great zeal in return for his lodgings; at others, making pedestrian tours of observation through that and neighbouring “fields.”

The claim still continued to yield a remunerating, if not rich return for the labour bestowed upon it, and all thoughts of removing were, for the present, abandoned, when one of those sudden disasters which show us that nothing sublunary is certain, occurred.

A day of violent showers, driven by gusts of wind, closed in early, more so to the few, who, like Gilbert and his friends, had selected the isolation of the mountain gorges, for the

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heights hid the occasional gleam of sun, which looked out with rueful face between floods of tears, and the vapours were driven by the wind into these recesses among the hills. Every thing was comfortless—the fire would not burn; tea, in consequence, could not be boiled; the tent was small, and lumbered with such things as were liable to injury, and the howling wind, finding its way beneath the canvas, extinguished the lamp. Owing to the soporific influence of a tobacco-pipe, or to the gloom cast by the state of the elements, conversation flagged, and one after another resigned themselves to sleep. Some time after, Gilbert was awoke by the roaring of waters—the truth broke upon him: the creek had risen—he rushed to the opening in the tent—the rain had abated; the clouds hung round the mountains, and faintly a gleam of moon-light fell through them, and glittered on a wall of water rushing down the precipitous bed of the creek.

“Up, up;” he shrieked, “the flood is upon us!”

No second bidding was needed; they were in a moment upon their feet; no time remained for deliberation, or to save aught of their property: by a common instinct they sprang to the height behind them and began the ascent. Onward the water came, wearing a voice of icy warning to the diggers; and by the time the fugitives had reached a level far beyond flood-mark, they were homeless and destitute of all but what they carried about them—a few pounds, and a digger's well worn suit each. The long wet grass had thoroughly saturated them, and they cowered there till morning's light revealed their losses.

“All is gone!” remarked Bain calmly. The Bunyip burst into a reckless laugh. Gilbert felt that while this affliction might happen to any one, to him it was another thorn in the tortuous path of wrong.

“I should not have minded the other things, only the new beetle,” was all the Collector said, with a very white face.

“We are all alike, Mac: near kin to beggars; but it's the last of Ophir I will see; I start from here to-day, ‘follow who lists.’ ”

“Where to?”

“Victoria—Mount Alexander, probably.”

“Lead on, Bain,” was the united response of his partners.

“I will accompany you,” said Maclean; and once more the party commenced a weary journey.