― 141 ―

The Washerwoman of Jacker's Flat

THE extreme disparity in the number of male and female denizens of Jacker's Flat was a source of sore discontent to the former. That refining influence which fair women are said to exert over rude mankind was a long-felt want, as, out of a population of twelve hundred and odd, only nine were of the feminine gender. Four of the ladies were mated — a reverential regard for beautiful truth forbids us saying married — and stultified the glorifying womanly attribute to a great extent by persisting in a course of intemperance, and rarely appearing abroad excepting under the stimulus of rum. Deduct from the five of the softer sex who remain unallied, so to speak, three under the age of six, and that the malcontent of the men was a rational grievance becomes patent to the meanest understanding. It has been said that where women and children are few, men of affectionate natures lavish their surplus sentiment on the lower animals. This characteristic did not prevail on the Flat — indeed, experience has taught us that there, as

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elsewhere, men so circumstanced invariably cleave to the intoxicating cup and abandon themselves to the seductive wiles of euchre, crib, and Yankee-grab.

The few dogs of the camp were lean and debilitated, of a furtive habit, and noted for their agility in dodging missiles; the cats were unkempt and fearful, and much disposed to abandon civilization for the joys of a wild, free life on Mount Miamia; but there was not a pack of cards or a dice box on that flat that did not bear unmistakable traces of good handling and long attention, and “Monkey Bill,” otherwise Mr. William Monk, the local publican, had no just cause to complain that the worshippers at the shrine of the god set up in his temple — “The Pick and Barrow” — were wanting in numbers or in religious zeal. However, these joys are vain and meagre substitutes for the companionship of lovely woman, and small wonder that the sign-board hung out before the new tent down the creek should excite pleasurable anticipations in the susceptible breasts of the local bachelors. The sign itself, apart from its terseness and the originality of its orthography, was not an object of the deepest interest — it was merely the bottom of a candle-box, on which had been inscribed with a ball of blue, in large, irregular capitals that staggered across the board at independent angles, two words — “WASHING DID.” Nor was the eloquent message which this laconic advertisement was intended to convey calculated to carry any great amount of satisfaction

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to the masculine soul, for, if truth must prevail, the negligent diggers seldom had any washing to be “did,” as many of them, reckless in the pride of big yields, simply abandoned a “rig-out” when once its appearance called very loudly for soap and water. Others acknowledged but one limit to the time an article might be retained in wear without washing, and that was regulated by the durability of the garment in question. Economy commended this latter usage, and it was most popular. No, the sign had a deeper, a more sacred import to the lone diggers; it announced a very welcome addition to the one-sided population, and signified — A WOMAN. What style and condition of woman she would prove was the subject of earnest speculation in Monkey Bill's canvas bar on the evening following the first appearance of the placard.

“I hope t' goodness she ain't hitched,” moodily remarked a long, angular man with a phenomenal growth of red hair and whiskers, who was revelling in the luxury of twist tobacco and raw brandy — a combination which seemed to suit his taste, as the “quid” was never removed to make way for the liquor, each pull at the pannikin being preceded, however, by mechanical and voluminous expectoration. The observation was greeted with derisive laughter.

“Anyhow, you won't stand a show, Bender; I'll bet a cabbage-tree you're the ugliest man from Home!” observed Dick Treen, with refreshing candour.

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“You've got no luck, old Frightful. Don't forget the time when you smiled at Martin's daughter on Bendigo and caused her horse to bolt.”

“I don't, I don't, Dick,” said Bender, as calmly as if he had been paid a flowery compliment; “I ain't built to please horses — and asses; but ladies is different — some of them takes to ugliness!”

And the speaker resumed his mastication with an air of supreme complacence, and passed his hand feelingly over his nose, which organ had been badly battered by a blow from a shovel in an encounter with a “jumper” at Deadman's Rush in '52, and afforded no contrast to his natural facial deformities, which were many and various.

“For my part, I'd rather she were married,” observed a tall, rather handsome young fellow, conspicuous by reason of his immaculate rig-out, who was sitting on a bush table. “Young, you know, and married to a beautiful youth like Bender!”

“Well, supposin' her boss does happen t' be anythin' like Joe Bender?” replied that gentleman, evidently nettled by the other's sneer. “Supposin' he is; if he ever catches you sneakin' round his tent he'll knock yer stiff for a condemned crawler! That's what Joe Bender 'ud do, me Honourable John, an' you'd best make a note of it, case y' forget!”

The Honourable John laughed lightly, and turning his back on the group, entered into conversation with a digger who was drinking alone in the shadowy part

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of the tent. In common with every other man on the Flat, he believed that it was not advisable to go too far with Mr. Bender, who (like every other man with a broken nose) had quite a reputation as a “slogger.” He was known to have knocked out Black Anderson after a tightly-contested battle of twenty-seven rounds at Specimen Hill one Sunday afternoon, and was, although rather proud of his unique ugliness, prepared to instantly resent any derisive levity, especially if it emanated from a person like the Honourable John, whose well-greased Wellingtons, careful shave, and neatly arranged curls earned the contempt of four-fifths of the miners.

John Blake could not have been more scrupulous about the set of his Crimean shirt, the arrangement of his silk sash and tie, or the curl of his moustache had the township boasted a large assortment of fair maids instead of being limited to so meagre a female population. With the few women at hand, however, he was on the very best of terms. “I'm of good family, and a gentleman, by G——!” was his stock boast. The community accepted the statement in good faith, and dignified him with the title of “Honourable.”

The man who was drinking alone in the dark corner was Mr. Stephen Bacon. It was a peculiarity of Mr. Bacon's that when he was drinking, in which agreeable recreation he passed most of his spare time, he loved to sit in the shanty, as far out of sight as possible, and drink alone — a particularly detestable characteristic in

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the eyes of the average digger. Mr. Bacon was a widower of three years' standing, and he drank, it was stated, to drown the grief occasioned by the loss of his wife. What terrible woe gnawed at his vitals and gave rise to an insatiable thirst for brandy previous to the demise of that lamented lady was never known, but that it was intense and irrevocable is proven by the knowledge that Stephen's unremitting but ineffectual endeavours to drown some secret sorrow in large quantities of ardent spirit had been the main factor in bringing his still young but broken-hearted spouse to her grave. After that sad event Mr. Bacon was able to start afresh and found his thirst on a tangible grievance. As an evidence of the enormous quantity of alcohol a settled sorrow can withstand, it may be mentioned that Steve Bacon had not exhaled a breath untainted with brandy for many years. He and “Mite” Power had “struck it” in a hole below the bend, but Monkey Bill “cleaned him out” pretty effectually before each sluicing-day came round. Every night saw him in the shanty, where he would sit and absorb grog till his hair became moist and clung to his temples in clammy rings, and the perspiration oozed from his forehead in large beads. At this stage he was wont to weep great tears of fusel-oil, and call upon his dead wife in lugubrious tones, or chummer over his sorrow with drunken dolorousness, till he was warned off by the forcible curses of the company, or unceremoniously ejected by

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a disgusted digger — whereupon he would stagger to his canvas residence and reassert his manliness by knocking his only child down and kicking her for falling.

Cecilia Bacon, known on the Flat as “Cis,” was about seventeen, slight and pale, with very fair hair, and large, frightened eyes of a light-blue tint. Her whole bearing was one of excessive timidity. Of a shrinking, retiring disposition, imagining herself a burden to her besotted sire, since the death of her mother her life had been a joyless one. She was not an interesting girl, never associated with the other females of the camp, and thought she had but one friend in the world — the Honourable John. He was very kind; he overcame her bashfulness, walked and talked with her, and being interested in the daughter was gracious to the father. Often and again had that sallow, fragile, awkward girl stolen into the shanty after midnight to guide the eccentric footsteps of her drunken parent to his tent, fearing he might stray into some abandoned hole and break his worthless neck if left to come home alone, and almost as often had she been heartily kicked for her pains.

The fair lady whose condescension in shedding the lustre of her charms on Jacker's flat had awakened tender anticipations in the breasts of the forlorn bachelors of that encampment by her preliminary announcement made her first public appearance on the following evening at Monk's hostelry. The usual

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brilliant assemblage was gathered together in the “bar” of that elegant establishment, engaged in the usual convivial pursuits, when universal attention was suddenly withdrawn from cards, dice, and brandy by the entrance of a stranger.

An apparition would not have been more startling. A coarse skirt alone betokened the stranger's sex; she wore a man's black slouch hat, which bore palpable traces of having seen long service “below,” and was trimmed with a narrow leather belt; she smoked a highly-coloured meerschaum pipe, the bouquet of which eloquently testified its strength; she had on a short guernsey buttoned up the front like a coat, whose sleeves, rolled to the elbow, betrayed an arm that might have graced a navvy; her hair was cropped short, and bristled almost six feet from the floor. Fleshy, broad-shouldered, and straight as a sapling, her hands thrust into the pockets on either side of her skirt with an air of aggressive manliness, the new washerwoman strolled into the room and up to the counter, coolly oblivious of the impression she had created. In a strong, masculine voice she ordered “stout.” Mr. Monk could scarcely express his sorrow — he had no stout — didn't keep it.

The lady calmly anathematized his eyes, cleverly lumped his soul, shanty, and immediate relatives in a brief but comprehensive curse, and “made it gin.”

The gin was satisfactory. Then she replaced her

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pipe, after throwing off the “nobbler” with scientific abruptness, thrust her hands into her side pockets once more, and, lounging against the counter in a devil-may-care, intensely mannish attitude, boldly surveyed the company. Everything about the woman bespoke her manly sentiments. Those skirt-pockets were a brazen plagiarism of the refuges for idle hands in the nether habiliments of the lords of creation, and her upper lip bore unmistakable traces of an earnest endeavour to grow a moustache; even her distorted nose seemed to suggest the pugnacious male.

Monkey Bill's patrons were astounded; they gazed at the washerwoman and at each other in grave surprise, and continued playing their hands with unwonted solemnity. Bender alone seemed capable of grasping the situation, and, after concluding the game in which he was engaged, left his seat and advanced to the new-comer with outstretched hand.

“Brummy Peters!”

“What! Bender?”

“That same.”

“Well, I'm — !”

After a hearty, hail-fellow-well-met sort of greeting, Bender ventured the query:

“Well, Brummy, how's things?”

To which the lady replied that things were very slow indeed, emphasizing the assertion with an ejaculation only admissible in the pulpit, and informed Bender, in a casual way, that Peters was no more.

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Mr. Bender did not seem to think himself called upon to exhibit very violent grief over this sad intelligence; he merely remarked:

“You and Peters weren't spliced, were you?”

One might think the palpable indelicacy of this question would have affected the lady to anger; but no, it touched only her pride.

“Spliced!” she ejaculated, and all the scorn she felt for that feminine weakness was apparent in her voice. “Devil a fear! We just chummed in.”

Further conversation revealed the fact that the late Mr. Peters, whilst under the influence of blended liquors, had fallen into a puddling machine at Bendigo, a lamentable accident which was only made apparent some time later, when bones, buttons, boots, and other distinguishing features turned up in the sluice-boxes. Mr. Peters's chum, who had been accorded her mate's surname and sobriquet as a humble tribute to her superior manliness, was then thrown upon her own resources — and here she was at Monkey Bill's bar.

Mr. Bender introduced the latest acquisition to the assembled gentlemen as “Brummy Peters,” insinuating, with some judicious profanity, that she was a splendid fellow, and had vanquished a reputable pugilist in her time. After which the lady took a hand at crib, and succeeded in winning several pounds, and establishing her reputation as “a good sort of a chap” before the night was spent.

Three months passed by, and Jacker's Flat still

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maintained its not over-numerous population. The yields, though good enough to keep its pioneers hanging on, were not sufficiently exciting to attract strangers from a distance, and if few had departed less had arrived. Amongst the former was the Honorable John — that gentleman, “by G——,” having furled his tent by night and silently stolen away, without taking the trouble to afford his numerous creditors an opportunity of bidding him a fond farewell. Brummy Peters, by which inelegant appellation the Amazonian laundress became generally known, was a frequent visitor at Monkey Bill's establishment where she placidly puffed at her meerschaum, dashed off an occasional brandy, called down dire eternal penalties on the urbane host for omitting stout from his stock-in-trade, and engaged in various games of cards and Yankee-grab with so natural an air of manly bravado that her chosen associates at length quite overcame the diffidence that the presence of a woman had occasioned, and comported themselves with their accustomed easy freedom, no longer pausing to select their oaths with an eye to gentility or style, or being deterred by gallantry from raising a row when all didn't seem fair, square, and aboveboard at the card-table. In fact, since Brummy acted as bottle-holder for Treen, when he and Barney Ryan settled their little difference in a fifteen-round mill, and displayed her signal ability to fulfil that honourable and responsible office, the

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men had quite disburdened their minds of the impression that she was a woman, and now looked upon her as one of themselves, a compliment for which she was duly grateful. Certainly, Bender was frequently chaffed about his intimacy with Brummy, between him and whom there existed a friendship; but the inferences of these jokes were so preposterous, and the jokers themselves were palpably so cognizant of the absurdity, that Mr. Bender received the chaff with the best grace. Mrs. Peters did not consort with the others of her sex at the camp, but in the unwholesome-looking daughter of Mr. Stephen Bacon she displayed a sort of fraternal interest, which moved her to tow that lugubrious inebriate from the shanty to his tent on divers occasions in a manner at once unceremonious and emphatic.

The washerwoman had adorned the locality with her rather massive charms for the space of about ten months, when one dark night, deterred by the rain from making her usual visit to the “Pick and Barrow,” as she sat on an inverted tub in her cosy tent, her hands deep in her side-pockets, her back against the bunk, her feet thrust out towards the fire that raged up the small sod chimney, and the inevitable meerschaum in her lips (manly even in her solitude), a light, quick step was heard without, the flap of the tent was drawn aside, and Cecilia Bacon, whiter, more wretchedly wobegone and desolate-looking a thousand times than was her wont — and she was

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white and wobegone at her best — staggered into the tent. Her head was bare, her thin flaxen hair, sopping wet, clung to her face and neck; and the rain dripped from the poor skirt that was drawn up to shield a tiny object feebly wailing at her breast.

Brummy started up, her beloved meerschaum, the object of a year's tender solicitude, fell, unheeded, and was broken on the clay floor. She caught the reeling girl in her arms, and laid her on the bunk, tenderly took the babe from the wet skirt, wrapped dry things of her own about the feeble atom of humanity, and laid it on a possum rug by the fire. After which she turned her attention to the young woman, and without a word commenced to divest her of her soddened garments and dry her reeking hair. Brummy was a woman now, with all a good woman's gentleness, compassion, and quick perception. She showed neither surprise nor curiosity, but proceeded quietly and quickly with her work, and when the girl, revived by the warmth and the spirit that was forced between her lips, began to moan and cry, she soothed her with pitiful words in a soft, low voice that proved how vain had been the long years of wild, rough life and harsh associations to embitter the soul within.

Cecilia's story was soon told. The Honourable John was the father of her child. He had deserted her without a consideration, without a word. After the birth, fearful of meeting her father, she had left her tent, intending to crawl to the creek and drown herself

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and her child; but when the black waters lay at her feet she had not the courage to take the leap, and, after wandering about the bush in the wind and rain, distracted with misery and fear, she sought the washerwoman's tent. “Because,” she said, “you saved me from him when you could.” And, starting up, she continued wildly: “He will kill me! I am sure of it! My father will kill me when he knows!”

“No, no,” murmured the woman, compassionately, “don't you fear. I will watch you.”

“You do not know him,” hoarsely whispered the young mother. “You do not know how terrible he is at times. He has threatened me with a pick over and over. He will do it now. Hadn't I far better have gone into the creek with my baby? My blood would not have been on my father's head then, but on his — its father's. Father is drinking again, and he will kill me!”

“Hush! hush! and rest now. If you can, go back to your tent early in the morning. Your father is drinking; he will notice nothing — tell him nothing. Leave your baby with me; I will care for it. Nobody will kill me!” And Mrs. Peters squared her great shoulders, and thrust her hands into her pockets, with her old assumption of manliness. “No one will kill me, I think!”

The habitué's of the “Pick and Barrow” were astounded, mystified, amazed, and virtuously indignant when on the night following the incidents

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related above Dick Treen entered Monk's bar with the intelligence that “Brummy Peters had got a kid!”

The shock conveyed by the news was general, and confounded the miners. They gazed open-mouthed and dumb. A hurt and resentful feeling succeeded. They had been imposed upon — their confidence had been outraged. To think that Brummy Peters, who had overawed them with her muscle and manly assurance and hoodwinked them with side-pockets and a billycock hat, was as frail as the frailest of her sex — a weak, wayward woman after all! It was a violation of all their finest sentiments. “And she threw me, Cumberland and Durham style, best three out of five!” murmured a small Geordie in a bated whisper, only now feeling the full force of his degradation. Strangely enough, all eyes focussed on Mr. Joseph Bender, who blushed like a school-girl under the concerted gaze, and toyed uneasily with his dislocated nose.

Gradually the look of consternation on the faces of the assemblage gave place to a broad grin, which presently extended to a wild guffaw, and thirty accusing fingers were pointed at the now furious Bender.

“Here, look here, you fellers!” he roared, dashing his glass upon the floor and drawing his sleeves back from his great, knotted fist. “This is too thunderin' stiff, y' know! The first man ez says I've anythin' t' do with that youngster 'll get smashed! Now, notice!”

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Nobody spoke, but everybody laughed, and the accusing fingers still pointed. Mr. Bender lingered for a moment on the point of running amok and wreaking his vengeance on all and sundry, but thought better of it, pulled his hat over his eyes, and strode out, his soul a prey to angry passions and the pangs of injured innocence.

Mrs. Peters fed the child by artificial means; she procured a cunningly-designed bottle and tubes, and went regularly to the station homestead, at the foot of Miamia, for milk. The diggers regarded this conduct with an unfavourable eye; they supposed it to be another display of anti-feminine sentiment, and nothing that Brummy might do now could make them forget that she was a woman — she had forfeited all her rights as a man and a brother irretrievably. She visited the shanty occasionally, and endeavoured to maintain her old footing, but the men preserved a studied coolness, and Curly Hunt even went so far as to suggest that she be summarily ejected, but that perky little individual was brought to a sudden repentance by being knocked over a bench and thrown bodily through the calico window by the ireful washerwoman.

Brummy appeared to be very fond of the child, but Bender was frequently accused of displaying a criminal lack of parental affection. Since the arrival of the little stranger the demeanour of this gentleman had undergone a painful change. He had grown

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moody and furtive; the banter of his companions drove him furious; to be regarded as the father of Brummy's child was bitter gall. Given any other woman, and he might have accepted the imputation with some complacency, but Brummy — Brummy Peters, with her side-pockets, ready fist, and strong meerschaum — it was too much. He determined to vindicate his character and clear his name of the tender impeachment at any cost. With this object in view he developed amateur-detective proclivities, and kept a zealous eye on the laundry.

The baby was just a month old when one night the homely Mr. Bender burst into the “Pick and Barrow” (which, by the way, he had avoided of late), his face radiant, and the ejaculation of an ancient philosopher on his lips.

“Eureka! I've struck it, boys!” he cried triumphantly.

“What? — the reef?” exclaimed the men with one voice — there having been some prospecting for a reef on the high ground.

“Reef be d——! No; proofs that you fellers 're a lot of blamed asses as 've been barkin' up th' wrong tree!” The representation of a lot of asses barking up a tree was certainly not a strikingly felicitous illustration, but Bender was too excited to be precise in small matters. He continued:

“See here, with all yer infernal cleverness, that kid ain't Brummy's after all.”

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“Not Brummy's!” — and great excitement.

“No, 'taint. It's his daughter's!”

But, despite Bender's circumspection, Mr. Bacon had heard, and he advanced into the light, the big tears stealing down his cheeks and his favourite look of unutterable woe overspreading his bloated face.

Whose child did you say, Mr. Bender, sir?” he queried, in tones of deep bathos.

“Nobody's! Go to blazes, snufflebuster! This ain't no business of yours.”

Stephen Bacon retired again to his shades to indulge his lachrymose propensities and sorrow over his brandy, and Bender related in a low voice how by keeping an eye on Brummy's establishment, noting Cis's frequent visits, and putting this and that together, he had arrived at the conclusion that was to prove him innocent of the delicate peccadillo insinuated against him.

Mr. Bacon's settled sorrow was very distressing that night, and he was subsequently ejected amidst a shower of tears, dolefully calling upon his late lamented wife to come back and comfort his declining years; but that lady, doubtless retaining a lively remembrance of the weight of his fist and the force of his foot, failed to respond.

Next morning being Sunday, an off day, quite a number of the miners, who were indulging in a game of quoits, and others who were sunning themselves and smoking on the grass, indolent and uninterested

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spectators, were disturbed by sounds of a row at the tent of their laundress, and as the public interest of the Flat centred for the time in that domicile, the loungers leisurely arose, the contestants dropped their quoits, and all strolled across to the tent. Mrs. Peters was standing with her back to the entrance, her lips were tightly compressed, and there was an awed, sorrowful expression in her face that the men had never seen there before. She held the baby in her arms, in quite a matronly fashion, and calmly faced Mr. Stephen Bacon, who was bordering on sobriety, and whose settled sorrow was subordinated for the time to unreasoning rage.

“You've got my girl here!” he yelled, gracefully turning the sentence with several euphonious curses, and brandishing the pick-handle he held in his hand.

“Yes,” replied Mrs. Peters, quietly; “she's in the tent.”

“Well, I want her. D——n you! I want her. I've 'eard your little game. It's all up! She got away from me last night, but I'll have her now!”

“She got further away than you think, Steve Bacon; but you can have her.”

“You don't want t' see no girl with that in yer fist,” said Bender, who had come up with the others, snatching the pick-handle from his grasp. “And you want t' be carm, y' know, 'cause if you hurt yer girl when I'm near I'll spread y' out quick.”

“He can't hurt her,” added Brummy. “Come in.

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Don't go away, boys; she'd like to see y' all. Jest come up and look in.”

The men who had turned away, thinking the girl would doubly feel her shame if upbraided in their presence, startled by the tone in which the request was made, went back. Brummy held the flap of the tent aside, and they all looked in.

“Great God! Dead!”

Yes, the pale, slight, awkward girl, scarcely paler in death, her large, light-blue eyes fixed with the frightened expression that had characterized them in life, lay dead upon Brummy's bunk, and from the spare flaxen hair, and the long thin hand, and the points of her clothing, hanging over the side, pools of water had dripped to the floor.

“Yes, she's dead!” said Mrs. Peters, the tears on her lashes belying her harsh tones. “Drowned! I found her body in the shallow water near the bank when I went to the dam this morning. This is your work, Joe Bender.”

“No! No! For the Lord's sake don't say that!”

“You told her story at Monkey Bill's last night — he heard you. That snivelling cur was a devil to her. She said he would kill her if he ever knew — he intended to last night, but she got away and took the job off his hands.”

Steve Bacon, shocked by the unexpected sight, had fallen into a crouching position in the corner. He straightened himself now.

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“And her child?” he muttered, pointing towards the dead girl.

“He is mine. She gave him to me, and I will keep him.” And the muscular arms of the washerwoman folded the tiny mite closer to her breast.

On the Monday evening following Brummy Peters was waited on by a deputation. A very respectful deputation it was, and wished “to signerfy that the fellers all voted her a brick, an' hoped how she'd pocket that trifle to help her with the youngster, an' say nothin'.” That trifle was a roll of notes of all sorts and sizes surrounding a five-ounce nugget, the biggest ever found on the rush, and the contribution of the Geordie. Mrs. Peters, in responding, accepted the gift, and said she knew “the boys was real grit,” and promised to make a man of the little chap on her bosom if she could.