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A Christmas Nugget: a Tale of the Victorian Gold-Fields.

A. Patchett Martin

IT was Christmas Eve. We were seated under the shade of a broad, low verandah, which overlooked the River Yarra, some few miles above Melbourne. The house was of that class which denotes that its occupant had, in the expressive vernacular of the Colony, “made his pile.” It was to English eyes a kind of glorified cottage, being all on one floor, standing in its own grounds, and entirely surrounded by the verandah, in the front portion of which we were lazily reclining in long cane “deck chairs.” Gazing over the bright expanse of garden that stretched from our feet to the river, one felt, without entering it, that “Eureka” must be a snug, nay a luxurious, dwelling-place. I, who had grown familiar with its inner recesses, can testify that it was so. In fact, as I constantly remarked to my kind host and hostess, there was nothing to distinguish “Eureka” from the home of a wealthy English gentleman a few miles out of

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London. Of course I made a mental reservation in saying this, for, despite the elaborate bed-curtains, I had provided an enjoyable meal for the demoniacal mosquito which haunts the willow-fringed banks of the Yarra in numbers compared to which the hosts of Kaiser Wilhelm are as naught. Besides, it was Christmas Eve, and the thermometer stood, in the shade of the verandah, at something over 100 degrees Fahrenheit; while I could fancy my folks on the Surrey hills looking out from beside their blazing hearths on a world of snow and ice. But, after all, these are external and superficial differences. Intrinsically “Eureka” was an English home, and its inmates English in thought and sentiment, with a patriotic pride in the achievements of our race which one misses only too often in the old country.

It was while dilating on these points with Mr. James Fletcher, senior, the father of my hospitable host, that I chanced to hear the story which I will endeavour to relate. Mr. Fletcher was a tall, powerfully-built, and still straight-backed old man of over three score, and though dressed in good broadcloth, and possessing a singularly self-contained manner, one felt that he was a person who had made rather than inherited wealth. There was also something indefinable about him which distinguished him from a well-to-do yeoman or a

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self-made townsman in England. Still, as we sat there under his son's verandah, smoking, I, indolently turning over the leaves of a recent English monthly magazine, said, not for the first time—

“What strikes me, as a visitor, most is the amazing similarity of Colonial and English life. Melbourne is only London with the ‘East End’ eliminated and the ‘Unions’ destroyed.”

Mr. Fletcher slightly shifted his position, and slowly removed his pipe.

“I was quite a youngster,” he said, “when I left the dear old Home, and like enough will never see it again, though I assure you I often long to. But I imagine my life would have been a very different one had I remained until now in Warwickshire.”

“Yes,” I replied, “that may be. I can quite understand that all this civilisation and culture, this busy commercial and political life of Melbourne or Sydney, have not been produced by a wave of Harlequin's wand. But, sir, looking at you now, I cannot realise that your own life has differed widely from that of thousands of successful men in England.”

I admit that I made this remark rather to “draw him out,” in the hope that he might have some episode of his early colonial experiences to relate, which I fancied might be of more interest than an ordinary chapter in the life of a successful man of

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business in England. As my object was to beguile the old gentleman to relate some of his pioneer experiences, I certainly succeeded; but, although I listened with great interest to his narration, I fear I shall not be able to tell the story again—at least in such a style as to interest others. Mr. Fletcher, however, began somewhat in this way—

“You will please remember that for many years I passed through life without a surname. It was from no desire on my part to hide my identity; but it was a common habit on the gold-fields to call one another by our Christian names, or by a nickname. A ‘Mister’ was almost as uncommon as a ‘bell-topper.’ I was known for a dozen years at least as ‘Long Jim,’ and at last almost forgot that I had any other name to go by. Those were the days of the old Eureka Stockade. Ah! I forgot, you don't know the story; but I must tell you some other time. This house is called ‘Eureka,’ a name known to every Australian digger, for it calls up the time when, on Old Ballarat, the miners rose in arms against Sir Charles Hotham's soldiers, and though they got the worst of it, the liberties of the community were then won.

“I am,” continued Mr. Fletcher, “what you in England would call a Tory, or rather a Tory Democrat; but knowing what I do of the ‘early days’ on Ballarat, I sympathise entirely with those

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who rose against the local government of the day. But enough of the ‘Eureka.”’

I remembered that Mr. Fletcher, a day or two before, had introduced me to a big, burly, one-armed man, in Collins Street, whose name I have forgotten, but who, he told me, held the high office of Speaker of the Assembly, although he had lost his arm while leading the Ballarat rioters. This, I infer, was this same story of the “Eureka.”

“Well,” continued Mr. Fletcher, “I was known only as ‘Long Jim,’ and my son, who mightn't thank me for telling you all this, was called, p'raps to distinguish him from me, and p'raps because he was always hopping and skipping about, ‘Kangaroo Jim.’ ”

When I heard that Mr James Fletcher, junior, who was somehow more sophisticated than his worthy father, more like the conventional well-to-do Britisher, and who was, besides, a Member of Parliament, and a churchwarden to boot, had gone by the sobriquet of “Kangaroo Jim,” it seemed to throw more light on the social life of the Victorian gold-fields than I had been able to glean from a careful perusal of the voluminous writings of the industrious Mr. James Bonwick.

“Now, this story,” continued the old gentleman, “more closely concerns my son than it does myself; but, perhaps, you won't refer to it unless he

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leads trumps. Won't you help yourself?—the whiskey's near your corner.”

I could not fail to notice that as Mr. Fletcher, senior, proceeded, his language seemed to assume “the tone of other days.” The hint not to broach this little family history to the M.L.A. and church-warden was not lost upon me, nor the suggestion—startlingly like a bribe—to help myself to the excellent, if somewhat fiery, beverage.

“It's over a quarter of a century ago,” continued the old man—“Lord! how time slips by! I was then in my prime—a hale, strong, hearty man of forty—and Jim, that is my son, was a slip of a lad of, maybe, sixteen or seventeen. His mother was dead—got washed out of the tent in a storm one night, and she and Jim's little sister, sir, died from exposure; and the boy and I were left to shift for ourselves.”

Here Mr. Fletcher reached out and helped himself somewhat liberally to the potent spirit, paused a moment, sighed heavily, and drank off the contents of his tumbler in a gulp.

“Well, after this young Jim and I,” he continued, “tried our luck wherever there was a ‘rush.' Somehow we didn't find any. We had settled down for a bit at Cain's Gully—not a pretty name, but the old diggers were fond of Murderer's Flats, Devil's Creeks—anything strong and theological. Cain's

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Gully was near Break-o'-Day, and we used to go down to the township, at least once a-week, for stores and to see the ‘boys.’

“Break-o'-Day,” added Mr. Fletcher, “was quite a thriving township. Why, I've heard the ‘Inimitable Thatcher’ sing there in the parlour of the ‘Bull and Mouth.' ”

I would have liked to hear, but thought it better not to inquire, who this Homer of the gold-fields was, whose very advent to a place singled it out as one of importance and distinction.

“Ah!” continued the old man, after a pause, during which he carefully filled his pipe, “they were happy times! Next to us on one side worked a couple of swells who had been to Oxford, and on the other side a couple of scoundrels, who had graduated at quite a different kind of University. But we didn't inquire into pedigrees in the early days.”

Mr. Fletcher here made another pause, which he turned to good account by reaching for the whiskey after which little ceremony he proceeded, without interruption, with his narrative.

“One day we heard that a stranger, accompanied by an old woman and a yearling child, had taken possession of the tumble-down shanty on the old disused track to Break-o'-Day.

“This old hut was close to Hangman's Flat,

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and the place bore the reputation of being haunted——”

I looked up at the narrator.

“By bushrangers,” he added; “and though it was a short cut to Break-o'-Day, only for the big gully to be crossed, very few cared to go that way. So the new-comer who had taken up his abode at the shanty remained a stranger.

“After a long spell of ill-luck our party at Cain's Gully struck the stuff, and struck it rich for a while. There were queer customers prowling about the gully, so we thought it best to send down the gold into Break-o'-Day. Jim, my son, sir, was told off to take it down. He was to remain the night in Break-o'-Day, and return next morning with stores and things we wanted.

“Well, something induced Jim to take the short cut. Dusk was coming on as he neared the Flat and left the hut at some distance on his right. After a time it became so dark he found he had to dismount and lead his horse, which had stumbled more than once. Suddenly he felt himself seized from behind; a grip on his throat and a clutch at his belt, and while struggling to release himself the gleam of steel caught his eye. With a sudden bound he freed himself, and sprang forward, turning to face his assailant, who again threw himself upon him, knife in hand. Though no match in

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point of strength against the older man, Jim was very spry; he sprang back, drew his weapon, a flash and a report, and the figure before him fell heavily forward, face downwards.

“An hour later he rode into Break-o'-day, and went straight with his gold and his story to the police magistrate. There was no reason to disbelieve it, for human life was then cheap on the gold-fields. So the dead man was left all night lying where he had fallen, and when the magistrate, the coroner, and Jim rode out next morning, with a couple of troopers, they found the body lying precisely as Jim had described it, a stiffened corpse, still firmly gripping a hunting knife in a dead hand.

“There was an old crone at the hut, who expressed neither surprise nor sorrow when she heard the news. ‘As to the child,’ she asked, with an avaricious leer, ‘what was to become of the little dear? She couldn't keep it any longer. Who was going to look after it now that Moonlight Bill was dead? Could any Christian gentleman present tell her that?’

“To his own surprise, perhaps, my son Jim heard a voice that was distinctly his own replying that he would; and he could hardly believe the fact, until it became a tangible and somewhat inconvenient reality in the shape of a plump little damsel of

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about three, who climbed upon his knee and nestled close to him as if for shelter.

“ ‘My God!’ said Jim, as the child put up her little face to be kissed, ‘she must never know what work my hand has wrought.’

“ ‘And it's Christmas morning,’ he added, with a wild laugh. ‘Well, gentlemen, I can't stop here any longer, and, with your leave, I'll take back to the camp this “CHRISTMAS NUGGET.’ ” Without another word he caught up the child, mounted his horse, and in a moment was out of sight.

“Until the age of twelve the child followed the rude fortunes of the rough lot among whom her lines had fallen. But we were never rough to her, not even Bill the Bo'sun, an old man-of-war's man, who had given Her Majesty's service the slip to seek a fortune on the gold-fields. Bill, who found it difficult to express his meaning on any subject without an oath or two, positively became respectable in her presence. We were her nurses, play fellows, teachers of A B C, and, later on, of strange and incongruous scraps of learning. Bill paid especial care to the matter of the young lady's education, and often insisted on explaining such phrases as ‘abaft the binnacle,’ being apparently under the impression that navigation was an essential feminine accomplishment. Of course,

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she lived with Jim and myself, and we grew fonder of her every day.

“But there dawned a day when it suddenly flashed across us both, like a revelation, that she was springing out of childhood into a tall, slim maiden, fair and pleasant to behold.

“ ‘Her frocks is too short,’ said the old ‘bosun,’ when we discussed the matter with him.

“I don't think anything else would have made us realise so plainly that there was something incongruous and even wrong in keeping her with us; but that night we agreed, painful as it might be to all round, that she should be sent to Melbourne, and placed at some good school. It was a pretty stiff parting scene; but she went, Jim taking her on to Break-o'-Day, and there seeing her safely in one of Cobb's coaches.

“Four more years passed away in the same manner. We failed to make our ‘pile’, but every fresh defeat only caused hope to grow the stronger; and as for the girl, though we didn't see her, I knew, even if he didn't tell me, that Jim wrote once a-week to the school at St. Kilda, and that everything was going on well.

“At last the luck came, and Jim and I awoke one morning, not to find ourselves famous, but what's a great deal better, rich. We had at last

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struck the reef. I was not sorry, for the way of life and my age were beginning rather to tell on me; as for Jim, he was in the prime of his manhood; but he had been a digger from a boy, and he, too, longed to settle down.

“It was Christmas time. We had decided to sell out and go down to Melbourne; but before doing so I had consented that she should come to us, and once more see the scenes familiar to her childhood, before we all bade them a final farewell.

“I could see that Jim was uneasy all day. He kept moving about restlessly, but I pretended not to notice him.

“ ‘Do you think,’ said he, at last, ‘that I ought to tell her?’

“ ‘What?’ I asked.

“ ‘That it was I who killed her father. I must do something, and that quickly, for I know that when I see her again I shall long, with all my soul, that she should be my wife.’

“ ‘It is true you killed him, but in self-defence. The story is known to everyone at Cain's Gully; but whether she ever heard it I doubt. Wait a while.’

“ ‘I can't wait,’ he moaned. ‘Unknown even to you I have written the whole story down and sent it to the mistress of the school. What will she think of it?’

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“Suddenly, in the dusk, a figure glided into the tent. Jim buried his face in his hands; when a voice said, first addressing me, in passionate tones—

“ ‘Dear old dad, I remember no father but you.’

“Then flinging herself on her knees before Jim, with a gesture of infinite pity and tenderness she drew down his hands from his face and covered them with kisses.

“ ‘My poor Jim!’ was all she said.

“At this stage I felt myself rather in the way, and silently went out to see if the Southern Cross was attending to business as usual.

“You can guess the rest, perhaps,” said Mr. Fletcher, with a curious smile.

Just then the garden gate was flung open, and a tall, gentlemanly-looking man, with a singularly handsome, fashionably-dressed woman on his arm, came up the path towards us.

“Jim,” I said, sotto voce, “is your son, Mr. Fletcher, the Member of Parliament;—and Mrs. Fletcher——?”

Is Mrs. Fletcher,” he replied, “but she was ‘OUR CHRISTMAS NUGGET.’ ”