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II.

A week later Briscoe entered the kitchen at the close of day, with the wash-up in the gold dish under his arm. Reaching up to the top shelf he got down the blower and pushed the dab of sand and gold into it with his finger, and, walking quickly to the store, placed it thereon to dry. This accomplished, he got down the scales box, and proceeded to clear the gold, shaking it from side to side in the blower, and foo, fooing at it with his breath till the black sand was all blown on to the sheet of newspaper before him;


  ― 241 ―
then, with his finger, he poked out the shot and odds and ends of ironmongery that remained, and, tipping the blower, sent the thin yellow run of gold into the scales. His wife leaned over his shoulder.

“What luck, dad!”

He pointed to the gold, and gave her a look that fully explained. She made no observation, but went inside and fetched his dry socks and slippers.

“Might go a quarter. Um! Well, well! Look at that! Four weights, twelve grains! What miserable weighing stuff! That much of the ‘Gully’ gold would have weighed seven pennyweights easily. I'll have to rob the blowings, I suppose, to make up the quarter.”

These blowings were an accumulation of sand and what gold escaped the blower for perhaps six months. They were carefully kept in a little bottle till some defaulting wash-up needed swelling into an even weight.

“She's getting worse, Missus, instead of better; it's enough to give a man the blues.”

Late that night they sat talking things over at the kitchen fire.

“I hate leaving home,” said Briscoe. “I'd sooner stay here on half pay than go; but what's to be done? The place is worked out. Of course, Ferry has written twice, asking me to go over to the West, and, God knows, Ferry had nothing when he left here. And look at him now! I could be sure of wages with him at Cue, anyhow, and, once there, he might lay me on to something good. Clarke and Jackson and Brownley have all bettered themselves since they left, and why shouldn't I?”

Mrs. Briscoe had a very awkward bit of darning in hand, and seemed inclined to evade the question. At last she looked up and said softly, but earnestly:—

“Yes, perhaps; but it's such an awkward place out there; so much sickness, and so hot, too; and so little water, and——” she finished the sentence with a sigh, and again directed her darning needle in its steeplechase over the alternate threads. She did not care to speculate upon the chances of a fortune hidden in the West. She felt it was but building castles in the air; her husband was nearest and dearest to her; and there was a strange feeling that this awful West would steal him from her in some way—that he would never return.

“Never mind the heat, Rose; other men have had to take their risks, and have survived, and won their fortunes, too. I'm not afraid of that. We'll whack the money we have; it is about £ 40—halve it for luck. The £ 20 will carry you along for six months, and, besides, I'll send you some every month. Keep the garden going, and you and the kinchins will be all right. Your brother Dan is living within a stone's throw if you want help at any moment.” He paused, and held up her face, and kissed her cheek, wet with tears. “Cheer up, little woman. I see the bright sun shining. A voice seems calling me. What if I should make a pile, and come home and quit mining, and buy a grand, snug little farm, and settle down for life?” Her face brightened as she rose. His words of hope had carried their sway, and melted her opposition.

“Very well, Jim; do what you think is best.”




  ― 242 ―

Just thirteen turns the little clock got each night, and no more, and was then set back between the two pink vases. And in winding up her clock she wound up her day's work, and it was only then that one knew her day had ended.

In a few days Briscoe had sold his half interest in the claim, and stood with his wife and children at the road half a mile from the house, waiting for the coach. Soon it rattled up.

“Hello, Jim” cried the jovial handler of the ribbons. “Sending the family off to the smoke for a change? What! No? Going to steer West? Well, good luck, old man! Wish I was goin', too!”

As the old red rattletrap turned the next curve a handkerchief fluttered from the window, and a woman's eyes sought the ground, as if tracing a plan of future days; nor did she feel the little hand of her child tugging at hers, nor hear the question put oft again, “Muvver, wath this?” as she held up an old rusty buckle she had found in the dust. At length she called Ralph to her side, and slowly returned to her home.

The time passed on slowly till the first letter came, telling of Jim's safe arrival at Sydney. Her children were all in all to her now, and good little Ralph seemed to realise, as some children will, his fresh responsibilities in his father's absence. One evening he set his mother's chair at the tea table for her, and placed his own at the head, where his father had always sat.

“I want to be father, now, mother,” he said. “You must call me little father, coz father's away.”

Jim's second letter lay on his wife's lap. “I am leaving to-night for the West. I go by the Bolaro, and we start at 9 p.m.”

She watched the hand of the clock creep to 9, and then felt her loneliness indeed. “I must be brave and strong,” she said. “Jim is right; he will do well—he might strike it rich. Who knows?”

Suddenly the clock stopped at a minute past 9, and there was absolute silence in the room. She started up and shook the timepiece.

Whatever does it mean? It never stopped like that before.” She replaced it, and again it stopped. “I couldn't have wound it properly last night,” she thought, and gave it a few turns, when off it went once more. She sought the children in their beds. Both were sleeping peacefully, and she felt, in her loneliness, tempted to speak to them, that she might find companionship in their voices.

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