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  ― 239 ―

Little Father.

I.

Jim Briscoe turned the hydraulic nozzle slowly, directing the water to a patch of rough cement that offered very stubborn resistance.

“There, you can bore your way into that while I get a smoke.”

He found his knife missing. “Um! Must have left it up at the hut at crib time, I suppose.” He moved the nozzle a point or two again, and, drawing a plug of tobacco from his pocket, proceeded to tear off a smoke with his fingers, staring in absorbed fashion at the jet, which was roaring loudly on a flat stone in the wash-dirt, and sending up a white spray, whereon the western sun was flashing rainbow tints.

Suddenly the roaring ceased, the rod-like column of water broke into spray at the nozzle mouth, and Briscoe, turning to the bank, where his mate was pointing a fork with a hatchet, yelled, “Water off, Joe; look slippy.”

Joe was off in an instant, running up the hill along the course of the distended canvas till he reached the race and turned off the water. Mean-while Briscoe, as soon as the pressure had eased sufficiently, took off the nozzle and extracted a piece of wood that had caused the obstruction.

“Blessed nuisance, these sticks, Joe,” he said to his mate upon his return. “We must use a finer screen up there. That wire-netting's no good—too coarse. We'll be having a bust up in the pipe soon.”

When all was ready again for action the water was restored, the canvas coil wriggling along its course down the hill with the first onrush of water, till, meeting with confinement in the nozzle, the canvas began filling back, and presently hundreds of needle sprays shot out on all sides of the coil, suggesting thoughts of pleasant fountains in city parks, and creating longings to lie in the pleasant sun, cooled by the fairy showering spray.

“Well,” said Briscoe to his mate after knock-off, as they looked down at the claim from the home path on the crest of the little bill, “this place is a puzzle to me. Johnstone says that Ratliffe got 11 weights to the paddock there below the bar, and old Wright claims to have taken 14 ounces out of that patch near the wattles, and coarse gold, too—that's what beats me. We can't raise anything better than mustard where we are. That's the worst of it. If a man knows there's coarse gold about he's always in hope of getting a piece that'll make up for lost time. Look at that gold we got up at the Junction; some sense in that.”

His mate having acquiesced, they started for home, Briscoe remarking that “if the next paddock didn't pan out better he intended to ‘ding’ it,”




  ― 240 ―

The miner is of all men sanguine of success in the face of difficulties, but then troubles never come singly in the world of washdirt, but even as in the non-auriferous walks of life and industry; and there must necessarily be times when the race requires more fall, the canvas wears out, the prospecting dish fails in its reward, and, still worse, the all-important factor of water begins, under the influence of drought, to slacken off. At such crises it takes a brave heart to struggle through, and, let it be said to their eternal credit, the heart of miners are truly “hearts of gold.”

Briscoe, nearing his cottage, spied his little son Ralph, aged 7, toddling down to the gate with his only sister, Fan, aged 5. They were coming, as usual, to meet him.

The father's face brightened.

“Well, this won't do, Mr. Briscoe,” he said, half aloud. “You must shake off the blues, old son. It won't do to carry all that mullock home for the missus to worry over.”

The children shouted and raced towards him gleefully.

“Hello, dad! Mother killed a snake—great big snake—near the chimbly. I got the shubbel and Mum watched him, and I got the shubbel and Mum killed his head off with the shubbel, and——.” Here Fan broke in lispingly, “ 'N Muvver put the thnake on the arnth next 'n it wiggled and wiggled, dardy.” Here the young lady clapped her hands triumphantly.

“And, I say, farver,” cried Ralph, impatient of his sister's interruption, “the sewin' machine man came to-day; and Flora got off her chain at him; and the parrot got out, and a nasty ork was at him, farver; and mummy shooed him orf, and ——.” Here Briscoe held out his hands, and the lad, seizing them, climbed up, or, rather, walked up his legs and body, and perched on his back: while Fan was borne in front. Presently the verandah was reached. “Boots, daddy, boots!” cried Ralph. “Bewth, dardy, yeth; bewths, pleath,” yelled Miss Fannie, and gently the fond father set them down, and a moment later he had a jockey on each instep, their little legs stuck out straight behind, and elevated above the floor to assist locomotion. Splodge, splodge went the gum boots through the house, the children rising and falling alternately as he proceeded.

“Muvver, come quick, and look,” cried Fan,” and, of course, mother did come, even at the risk of burning the toast; came, as she did each evening, to laugh and say. “Well, Jim, I wonder how you can carry those big lumps like that!”

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.

III.

Some little while after Briscoe's departure a family named Nancarrow came to reside in the village and to be neighbours of Mrs. Briscoe's, scarcely a stone's throw separating their houses. George Nancarrow was of Cornish extraction, likewise his wife. “We be Cousin Jack and Cousin Jennie, Mrs. Briscoe. Wafe 'an I were borned not tew male apart, lass, and we're gotten fave yungsters in Ostriliar and fave in Old Contray, that'l make cloath on tane, woan't it? We're gotten one poor thilly boy; leathway he's not thilly-but dafe 'n dumb. Tookun t'arl the best doctors in Ole Contray, and last


  ― 243 ―
year tookun to Sydney, forth and back, but they kain't do-un no good; he kain't yabber, pore chap. Wafe 'll bring un raound and show thee.”

A queer-spoken fellow was Nancarrow, or so Mrs. Briscoe thought after he'd gone, nor was she less impressed with Mrs. Nancarrow when occasion brought her round with her deaf and dumb lad, Josiah Edward.

“He do be a sore trubble to we, Mrs. Briscoe, but Lord knows best.”

Strangely enough Ralph and he became fast friends. But not many hours after their acquaintance Master Ralph realised the hopelessness of trying to understand Joe. Ralph decided that Joe must understand him as best he might, and he merely pointed in the direction of his plans as it were, and ere long the big, vacant-looking boy ran hither and thither at his beck, like one devoted.

After they had gone Ralph came in with an important request.

“Cut my hair off short, like Joe's, will you, Mum?”

“What, child, have your pretty curls cut?”

“Yes, I'm too old now; they look like a girl.”

“I'll see,” said his mother, anxious to evade the task, but in vain, for Ralph kept on with the petition till it was granted. And the pretty flaxen locks were shorn and put away in a box in his mother's drawer to keep for father. The change in appearance was surprising. His closely-cropped poll looked quite dark now, his features bigger, and his mother declared “his father wouldn't know him again when he came back.”

Mrs. Nancarrow said, “he was little fayther now, right nuff, 'n no mistake,” which pleased him immensely.

IV.

Briscoe suffered a good deal after leaving Sydney, his ocean-going had been very limited, mere coastal runs on one or two occasions, and hardly calculated to test his swivels and balances. He found that he was a poor sailor, and left the vessel at Geraldton with inward rejoicings. Arrived at Cue, he soon got on to wages under his friend Ferry, and wrote cheerfully home to his wife.

Rose kept him regularly posted. A bright star gleamed through his window eastward. He called it “Home,” and, oft as he lay in his bed, he fell asleep while watching it. By day another star gleamed ever before him when he closed his eyes. It was the white star of Hope.

Hope is the day dream of our lives,
And we are dreamers,
Daily the present into future slips,
To glide away in past, forgotten hours,
Hope is the sunlight, aye, the very sun,
And at his setting all our spirit fails.
And gloomy night succeeds, till o'er her sha dowy brow
The rosy morn of his command appears.

And, indeed, Briscoe was ever listening to the voice that whispered in his working hours: “Better times ahead. You'll strike it rich some day.”

He wondered and wondered.




  ― 244 ―

He would soon be able to strike out across the arid country. He had saved enough for the purchase of a camel equipment, and looked out towards the world of dry-blowers, eager as a stalwart hunter for the chase.

At last the time came. A letter was posted home. His wife was to write to Naneen, and, if necessary, the letters would be forwarded on to him. “He was going to have a hunt round for a while. He would be all right. He would write as often as he could; but she must not worry if letters were slow in coming. … He might be out a bit from post-office reach… He was grand; never felt better. She would find £6 enclosed. She should ask Billy Goddard to draw some wood, to see her through the winter, and send the mare to Leuwin's till spring. She was to kiss “little father and Fan a thousand times for him, and keep her pecker up.”

I shall not tell the tale of his wanderings after that day, but leave the reader to drop in some evening after 10, and learn, over a pipe, of his doings at Naneen, Garden Gully, Abbots, Peak Hill, and even out at Horseshoe. It is too long a story to tell here, with its tolls, privations, and dangers. Many a brave fellow has sunk into oblivion in the North-west enterprise—gone as a drop of moisture into the absorbing desert sands. But I will tell that he won through all, and made a strike at Peak Hill, in the famous valley flat, where, in the white pipe-clayish looking stuff, rich reefs outcropped and crossed the flat like the rungs of a ladder.

Jim Briscoe's day-star gleamed brightly indeed. He, or rather, they, were rich. Two crushings had yielded handsomely, and, with the money netted from the sale of the mine, he was shaping homewards to the star of his dreams—to Rosie and Little Father and Fannie, and poor old unlucky brother Dan, and his father, and his widowed sister, with £3000. How he gloried in the thought of helping to brighten all their lives on reaching home! The vessel was cutting her time out well. He would land in Sydney on the twenty-second of December. Then a day to look round and get a swag for Santa Claus, and home on Christmas Eve! What a surprise, too. He hadn't breathed a word to Rose of his great luck, beyond stating that he had a good show, and that some were making fortunes. He had kept her “in the dark,” wishing to bear the glorious news in person. He had not been definite, therefore, in advising her about his return. He would just pop in like a Christmas-box for her, he thought.

V.

Christmas was going to be warm, but the hop vines clambering round the verandah posts made Briscoe's home always cool in the front. Travellers, calling for a drink, looked longingly at the cool retreat, where bloomed hydrangeas, geraniums, and other plants.

“When dardy comin' home?” Fan asked.

The needle waited. Mrs. Briscoe rested her hands in the sewing in her lap, and her eyes fell on the low, easy chair in the corner of the verandah, covered with goatskin. Ralph called it “the tippy chair,” because it played strange pranks at times, if unwary sitters sat too near the end.




  ― 245 ―

“When dardy comin', muvver?”

“Daddy will come back, dear, when he can.” She had been waiting anxiously for a letter for more than a month, and now Christmas was at hand, and no word nor sign of him.

“Mother, Joe wants me to go down to the hole for a bogey. Can I go?” asked Ralph, who spoke through the window.

She gave her consent, urging him to be careful, and keep out of the deep water. Once at the bogey-hole, their fun began—splashing each other furiously, and then running out to the edge of the hole, where they daubed themselves over with black mud, and ran chasing one another as Indians.

“Here comes mother and Fan for a walk” cried Ralph; “bet they've been after eggs.”

Joe looked fully impressed, but whether he knew the import of his mate's words I cannot say.

Again the chase was renewed, and Ralph, in order to defy pursuit, leaped upon the big dry log that stretched across the deep part of the hole. Never had he ventured there before, and it was a mad impulse that drove him back step by step, the elder lad following.

Presently there was a slip, a scream, and Ralph was in the deepest part of the hole. Mrs. Briscoe saw it all, and rushed screaming to the place. The poor dumb boy ran up and down the bank pointing to the spot where Ralph had sunk, and making his strange cry, “Oor, oor, oor!”

Out on the log the demented mother climbed, hoping her boy would rise within reach of her hand. Suddenly she saw his head. “Oh, God!” she cried, “help me!” The next moment a man plunged into the water from behind her. She had not observed his approach. The lad was seized in the strong rescuer's arms and taken to the bank. The overwrought mother climbed back along the log, grasping desperately for fear that, in her giddiness, she might fall. A wild scream of joy, of surprise, and thankfulness escaped her. “Oh, my God! It is Jim, my husband, and ——.” Falling forward she fainted in his arms. Gently laying her on the grass he turned to the child.

One searching look of scrutiny he gave the little pale face.

“Great God!” he cried, “it is Ralph, and I never guessed it.”

Fortunately, the lad had not been long immersed, and the efforts of his father to resuscitate him soon proved successful. He had been snatched from the very jaws of death. Presently the eyes of his mother opened. Wildly she stared at the little naked form before her. “He lives!” she cried, “he lives!” She covered him with passionate kisses. “Oh, my sweet little comforter, thank God for your life. He surely heard my prayer.”

There is no more flourishing farm along the North Coast of New South Wales for its size than Elmhurst. Everything is run on good, practical lines. The one thing needed now is a railway, and that is already in the air. As the long summer day closes a sturdy youth comes from the field, driving his two plough horses, or, rather, following in their wake, for they know the evening path to the nosebag and rest too well to need driving. A little


  ― 246 ―
distance behind a man and woman are walking and chatting as they come. The woman carries a little basket, known in the kitchen as the “4 o'clock basket.” They are the youth's parents.

“How Ralph has grown, Jim, this last year.”

“Yes, he's a fine lad. What could I do without that boy? What a mercy I came home at the very nick of time to save him that day.”

“Oh, Jim, it was God's work. Little did I dream at the moment it was you who splashed into the hole beside me. All my thoughts were on Little Father.”

And the red sun set behind the elms as a sweet girl of 14 came singing towards them: “Hot beans and bread and butter. Ladies and gentlemen, come to supper.”

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