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Struck Gold: A Sketch

YEARS ago, before the whistle of the steam-engine had been heard in the land, or the pellucid waters of the Yan Yean had been laid on to the dusty streets of Melbourne, and long before Burke and Wills had made that plucky dash across the mysterious continent which cost them both their lives, when crowded ships were landing their seething crowds of fortune-hunting immigrants on the magnetic shores of Victoria, three raw youths from Somersetshire also arrived in Hobson's Bay. Like all new chums in that now distant day, they had come to make their pile in those golden fields, for the fame of the recent discoveries at Ballarat and Bendigo had reached even the wilds of the West of England, and farmers and farm labourers were eager to throw aside the spade and plough of old England for the more money-making shovel and pick of distant Australia. And big piles were made in those times, made not by buying shares in great mines worked by machinery and governed by a board of well-paid directors sitting clothed in black cloth in luxurious

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London offices, but by hard work of muscle and sinew, by heavy labour, and sometimes even by privation and suffering, of men in rags, under the broad glare of the pitiless southern sun. It is a far cry now to those picturesque and romantic days, and the younger race of Australians, who are growing up patriotically and justly proud of their native land, read about them as they read about other matters of history—the signing of Magna Charta, for example, or the Indian Mutiny.

Of our three “Zomerzet” heroes, two differed in no respect from the ordinary clodhopper one still meets in the remote recesses of that agricultural county; in a word, they were pre-schoolboard youths, and were, in the language of the virtuous young man of the Adelphi dramas, “poor but honest.” But the third came under another category. He possessed both genius for art and the love of it; and in spite of want of opportunity, in face of many discouragements and difficulties, he had, even at his early age, made a name for himself in London as a sculptor, and that seal of refinement which ever marks the true artist was set upon his whole being. Unhappily, too great devotion to his beloved studies had demanded the usual penalty, and doctors had declared that if he did not exchange the cold and fog of London for a warmer and clearer atmosphere, he would be obliged in a month or so to say goodbye to his models and statues for ever.

So he proposed to his brothers that they should accompany him in search of fortune to the wonderful Eldorado of the south, with whose fame all the world was ringing; he even spent the last of his savings to

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pay for their passages. Arrived in Melbourne, they “humped their swags,” tramped to the diggings as the fashion then was, happy if they got ever so short a lift in a bullock-dray, and lost no time in pegging out a claim at Poverty Reef.

Months passed; the brothers worked as hard as diggers only know how, when a stroke of the pick may perhaps suddenly reveal to them an enormous fortune. Saving, however, the few small nuggets which they exchanged at the only store in the camp for the bare necessaries of life, no good luck came their way. Day after day saw them at their heavy labour; night after night saw them sitting weary and dispirited round the fire outside their little tent. Their fate was not singular; hundreds around them were in the same case. When one more lucky than his mates came across a pocket of nuggets, or an extra big bit of gold, he gave them or the notes he received for them to the landlord of the log hut dignified by the name of “hotel,” where whisky was sold for five-and-twenty shillings a bottle, and telling mine host to “let him know when the money was knocked down,” proceeded to drink till that event came to pass, which it generally did pretty speedily. The lucky man also invariably shouted for every comer who cared to drain nobblers with him, till the diggers didn't know a cradle from a pick, and the stock-drivers could scarcely touch a bullock with their twelve-feet whips, much less cut a piece out of its ear, as they could do in soberer moments. When sick and heavy-headed he recovered consciousness after his long booze, the digger went to work again—but never a sadder, if never a wiser man.

It was a cloudless night—one of those nights so

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frequent in that land without mist or fog, when the moonlight is so clear that every detail is revealed instead of hidden, as they are in northern lands, and colours may still be distinguished. The moon's rays glimmered on the sword-shaped leaves of the gigantic old gum-trees, so that one might almost fancy they were gemmed with dew; they slid along the strips of bark which hung like rags from the rugged stems, and rattled in the scorching sighs of a fiery wind, which had now blown for nine days at least. In the distance stretched the primeval forest — immense, solitary, silent — the huge trees growing bluer and bluer as they marched in long procession towards the dim horizon, where a line of long low hills broke the otherwise level outline of the earth.

The air was heavy with the scent of wattle-blossom, mingled unfortunately with strong reminiscences of sundry dead horses lying in the near gully which the dingoes had not yet had time to devour; strange wild flowers—the creeping blue sarsaparilla, the red desert pea; curious orchids and heaths grew in the short dry yellow grass, every colour distinct in the brilliant moonlight, while here and there a sombre she-oak cast a deeper spot of shadow on the ground than the more feathery wattles and young gums could attain to. The harsh shrieks of a few belated cockatoos and parrots might still be heard in the bush, as the night fell quick and sudden over the earth, palpitating with the still nearly intolerable heat.

The camp was almost silent, the deep sleep of some of the worn-out gold seekers undisturbed by the rude shouting and laughter which denoted the whereabouts of the drinking shanty.

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Two of the brothers, Jack and Will, came wearily in from their labours—utterly down on their luck, knee-booted, red-shirted, sunburnt, and mud-stained. They now looked like old hands; and as they threw their implements on the ground with muttered curse at their ill-luck, few would have recognised in these bearded men the fair-faced country youths who stepped on shore at Williamstown barely more than a year ago.

One of them proceeded to strike a match on the leg of his corduroys, lighted a candle, and stuck it in an empty bottle; the air, stagnant and warm, did not even cause the flame to waver. A fire was then made, a billy-full of water put on to boil, and Jack, taking some flour from a scantily-provided sack, proceeded to make the traditional damper, and put it in the hot ashes under the pot to bake. A handful of tea was then thrown in the bubbling water, the liquid poured into pannikins, and having seasoned the draught with coarse brown sugar, the brothers began their evening meal. Their funds did not run to mutton, so they munched their damper alone, with the appetite which youth and labour always appear to command.

“Where is Ned to-night?” said Will, cutting a huge morsel from the smoking cake with his bowie knife.

“Oh, loafing round, I suppose. Trying to see if the clay hereabout is fit for making images,” responded the other. “Never saw such a chap for Art as he is. He'll never make a digger.”

“What's the use of digging?” returned Will. “Here we've been working for months like niggers, and we haven't even a bit of tinned meat to put in our mouths, let alone plum duff.”

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“Take my word for it; we shall strike gold soon, and strike it rich,” said Jack. “The pipe-clay looked uncommon like it to-day; but what with the heat, long hours, and starvation fare, I couldn't get on any further to-day.”

“Luck's against us, mate,” said the despondent Will.

At this moment in rushed Edward with a fragment of newspaper in his hand. Oblivious to the fact that he had eaten nothing since their early morning meal, he cried, “I've made up my mind to go down to Melbourne at once. See here, they are advertising in the Argus for a sculptor to do some work for the new Government buildings, and I mean to go and try for it.”

“Don't be a fool, lad,” said the two brothers at once. “Here we are almost within sight of the gold, and you are going to chuck away your chance for the sake of a beggarly statue or so!”

“I don't care about the money! It's three years since I have touched a bit of modelling clay, or a block of marble, and I can't stand it any longer. Better starve at Art than live in luxury without it. I'm off by daylight to-morrow morning.”

“You'll have to walk then. There's no shot in the locker to pay for Cobb's coach.”

“Yes, I know. I can walk to Melbourne in a little over a week, and if I can get the job I will”; so saying he set to work to finish the remains of the damper and the nearly black tea.

Sunrise next morning saw the artist on his way, and it may be added here that when he arrived in Melbourne he got the commission for and executed the

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work so dear to his soul. It was the commencement of a busy and not unsuccessful artistic career.

But sunset that evening saw his brothers in a state of frantic delight bordering on delirium. They had finally struck gold, struck it in apparently inexhaustible quantities; lumps of the gleaming metal lay embedded in the teeming soil where mother Nature had carefully stored it up long centuries ago to supply the needs of her children in these latter days. As nugget after nugget gleamed in the pale light of the miner's lamp, a sense of greed and arrogance sprang up in the hearts of the young men, and when at night they staggered to their tent under the heavy and dangerous burden of their newly-acquired wealth, they sank to the ground overpowered, with scarcely strength or sense enough to bury it under their sleeping-places, yet determined it should be theirs, and theirs alone.

And the two brothers became rich men, rich among the richest men of a wealthy colony.

But the artist, who for the love of Art had left the claim before gold was struck, had no share in their prosperity, he reaped no reward for his long and arduous labour in it. But he had that reward which is greater than riches—success in the art he loved, a career full of honour and glory; at his death his adopted country mourned him greatly, and a monument was erected to him in his native country, where his name is still held in reverence, as it would not have been had he merely “struck gold.”