― 111 ―

11. Chapter XI.

The Colmar Mine is three hundred miles to the north-east of Adelaide, in the Hundrednote of Colmar, in the heart of the Salt-bush country–a far-reaching district, known variously according to local variations as the Salt-bush Wilderness, the Dwarf Desert, and the Waterless Country. But by whatever name it may be familiar before it is seen, the region transcends in uncompromising bareness any mental vision that may be evoked by its names.

A wilderness calls up a sombre uninhabited country; a desert, land that has never been tilled; while waterless country is in itself a description of parched-up barrenness. But a wilderness may have luxuriant herbage. A desert may consist of leafy scrub or shady forest.note And a land in which rain is seldom seen, and rivers never, yet sometimes has great rocks whose shadow, falling on the thirsty ground, may serve as a symbol of man's salvation.note But in this eerie waste there is no grass, no trees, no water–hardly the semblance of a hill. In many parts the sole vegetation consists of the salt-bush, a sad-coloured, low-creeping bush, more gray than green, which breaks when trodden on, with a brittle snap like dry stubble.

In some places the salt-bush grows in sparse clumps, in others the shrub is dense, and spreads more continuously. And yet again there are wide stretches in which the earth lies almost naked, baked into reddish gaping fissures. When rain falls, it is with a tempestuous rush–in a fury that lashes the earth instead of nourishing it into fruitfulness. The stony water-courses are at such times filled with water; but high as it may rise, in a few days all traces of it disappear. The slender gray-green filaments of nameless plants die away. The earth, lying in flat monotonous uniformity; the cloudless sky, pallid with continual heat; the wide majestic sweep of the horizon, where the silent earth seems to pass into the quiet sky; the austere desolation and sterility–these are the things that remain.

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The air is seldom cloven with the beating of a bird's notewings. Still more rarely does the presence of man break the solitude. Sheep-runs are few and far between. Many that were once fairly prosperous are now forsaken. The squatter might struggle with the chronic drought, for the salt-bush is an ascetic that has learned the secret of living without water in notethe most barren soil, and sheep that are to the manner born can live on salt-bush. But a more implacable foe than drought came in the rabbit, who is fruitful, and multiplies in these arid regions, till every other creature that has the breath of life is exterminated. The rabbits swarm in the Hundred of Colmar, but they cannot affect its chief industry, which is mining. The country is here intersected with low, sullen-looking reefs, running chiefly from east to west, marked at varying intervals by ironstone outcrops. It is on the southern side, near the western end of one of these reefs, that the Colmar Mine is situated, within eighteen miles of Nilpeena, a small township on the Great Northern Railway line. Half a mile to the south-west of the mine there is a township, also called Colmar, that sprang into existence when the mine was started. An inn, two stores, a blacksmith's forge, a schoolroom, a post and telegraph-office, a boarding-house or two for the miners, comprise the bulk of the houses, all, with the exception of the front part of the inn, made of iron.

The country between Nilpeena and Colmar is partly wooded, partly dotted with reefs, and the reefs are dotted with the remains of many attempts at reaping an underground harvest out of the earth, whose surface looks as barren as that of the barren sea. It is apparent to the least instructed eye that the country is rich in minerals. Gold, silver and copper have been found there, but the land is mostly waterless, and operations for the most part have been fitful, erratic, and unskilful. Thus out of notethirty so-called mines and diggings that have been started within a radius of forty miles in the Colmar district, all except half a dozen remain ineffectual beginnings.

Their sites are marked by noteshafts and trenches and notesqualid débris of heaps of dirt and stones that look as if burrowed up by larger rabbits than those that have come to be the normal

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proprietors of the country. Around these heaps lie smaller ones–crude chimney-stacks of unmortared stones; rotting sacks, full of native grasses, that have served as mattresses; broken tent-poles, with fluttering strips of tattered calico or duck; smashed bottles; empty rusting tins; shreds of slop-store clothing; battered "billy"-cans; old hats, whose slovenly greasy brims speak eloquently of the loafers that make up a large proportion of the nomads, ever on the move to these shifting El Dorados, where in a few days some "lucky beggar"note has picked up enough gold to keep him in grog and idleness for a couple of months or years, as the case may be. The Salt-bush country, as has been said, is, for the most part, a desert waste, with but few traces of man's presence. But those that are found in the form of deserted shafts and the sites of small alluvial diggings, degrade and vulgarize the landscape.

Even the Colmar Mine, which, since it first came into existence twenty years ago, has never been quite deserted, and is, as gold-mines go in South Australia, on a large and prosperous scale, forms an unsightly excrescence in the wide, austere and melancholy plain that stretches around it to unimaginable distances. The enormous stack vomiting out smoke night and day, the long irregular engine-house of galvanized iron, with its perpetual roar of machinery, the great heaps of bluish mullock, the equally massive mounds of red and chocolate-coloured tailings, the groups of squalid iron huts and motley patched tents in which the miners live, noteall speak of a form of existence radically divorced from all that constitutes civilized life; an existence, for the most part, unlovely as that of a tribe of savages, but without the savage tribe's picturesque wanderings; also, it may be added, without its occasional famines. But though the daily routine and surroundings of noteColmar are dull and prosaic to a degree,note its history is not without some spice of adventure and variety. Gold was first found there by a solitary bushman, who had gone prospecting, and came upon a rich gutter of gold near the surface, from which he extracted over £500 worth of gold in a few weeks. He was robbed and murdered by two tramps, who surprised him as he was about to carry away his treasure. The

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murderers were convicted and notehung. The notoriety thus gained by the Colmar, as a place in which a man with a pick and shovel and a digger's dishnote might pick up a couple of hundred pounds a week, caused a great rush to the neighbourhood. But once the gravelly drifts of an old water-course had been exhausted, the place proved to have little alluvial gold. A long low reef close to the noteold creek was found, however, to have a very rich lode.note In a short time a company was floated, chiefly with English capital.

Expensive machinery was bought; a large substantial house for the mining manager and numerous offices were erected. In short, everything was done on that handsome noteand lavish scale in which business is so often conducted when it consists notein paying away other people's money. After a few years, during which the directors drew handsome fees, and the shareholders' experience largely consisted in paying unexpected calls, the English company was wound up, and the Colmar Mine was bought by a Melbourne syndicate. The new company had a shaft sunk notea quarter of a mile away from the old one at what proved to be a junction of lodes in "kindly country."note The results were for a time sensationally good. The sweet simplicity of high monthly dividends was maintained for nearly notefour years. During that time the Melbourne syndicate placed the shares on the Adelaide market and sold them all at an astonishingly profitable rate. It was then that Mr. Shaw Drummond became so large a shareholder. noteA year afterwards the dividends waned, and then finally stopped for more than two years. People said the lode had pinched out, and shares were very low indeed.

Then came a succession of sensational crushings. New shares were issued, and the capital thus called up was devoted to fresh development. Dividends were once more resumed in an intermittent way. So the Colmar Mine went on for years after it was owned by an Adelaide company–sometimes almost coming to a standstill, at others galvanized into feverish popularity by extraordinarily good crushings; sometimes paying phenomenal dividends, at other times none. One year it would be well managed; another well robbed. One month yielding forty per

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cent. on the capital invested; the next, perhaps not noteyielding enough to cover working expenses.

At last, after the history of the notemine had been for two years more erratic than ever, an American managernote of great skill and experience was secured. For more than a year Mr. noteJoseph S. Dunning worked the Colmar Mine at a wonderfully reduced cost and a rapidly increasing profit. But once more, what people began to call the bad luck of the noteColmar re-asserted itself. One afternoon Dunning went down into the mine hale and well, and half an hour noteafterwards was taken out a corpse through the carelessness, or ignorance, of a new "shift-boss,"note who had at the wrong time set a fuse to a charge of dynamite. The directors despaired of finding anyone worthy of coming after the lamented American manager. But in the course of a week they succeeded in inducing an exceptionally good all-round man to take the position of manager at least tentatively–one whose mining experience was wide and thorough, and whose character stood high for probity. This was William Trevaskis, a justice of the peace and late M.P. for a town constituency. He had made a fortune chiefly by mining, but through two financial disasters, which occurred almost simultaneously–the noteskilful roguery of a man with whom he had been in partnership as a land-agent, and the failure of notea local banknote in which he had been largely interested–Trevaskis had in a short time been rendered almost penniless.

He reached the mine one morning notein September,note nine days before Victor Fitz-Gibbon came there as purser. One of the periodic droughts of the district was raging that season, and a high north wind was blowing, which blurred the light of the sun and made the air thick with grit and blinding dust. This was more especially the case in the vicinity of the mine, where the vast heaps of mullock and tailings dispersed themselves in the atmosphere on the slightest provocation.

"Thick enough to cut with a shovel, isn't it, captain?"note said Searle, the then purser of the mine, who was showing the new manager over the offices.

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"Is it often like this?" asked Trevaskis in a gruff voice, rubbing the dust out of his eyes.

"Oh, not more than three days a week, till November. But from November till––"

"What in thunder is the use of that long iron passage?" said Trevaskis in a tone of amazement.

The two had come round out of the assay-roomnote and the purser's office, which were at the southern end of the row of buildings generically termed "the offices." At the northern end was the manager's office, with a bedroom opening out of it at the back. There were six rooms in all, one opening into the other. The three between the manager's office and the purser's were used as store-rooms.

"I was waiting for you to exclaim about that passage, captain," said Searle, with a notedelighted chuckle. He was a plump, red-faced little man, in a continual effusion of garrulity, without the power of discriminating between a contemptuous and a deeply interested listener. He had been four years in the mine off and on, and was never so happy as when he was showing a new-comer round the place for the first time, telling endless stories about it, dwelling with immense complacency on all that made it, "taken all in all, the most remarkable mine in the whole of South Australia, perhaps, indeed, on this side of the Southern Cross."note

As Trevaskis stood staring at the long narrow passage of corrugated iron, six feet high, with a flat roof of the same material, lit at intervals by small single panes of glass let into the sides, Searle felt that the moment had come for him to fire off this sentence on the "captain." But he had hardly made a beginning when Trevaskis turned away from him with an impatient and scornful grunt.

"Is this the key of my office?" he said shortly, fumbling among the bunch Searle had given him. The purser stood open-mouthed, hardly crediting his senses. He had impatiently awaited the proud and happy moment when this strange passage, which started from the manager's office and terminated at the other end in an irregular circular iron building on the side of the notereef,note should strike the stranger with unbounded

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astonishment and curiosity. And now the new notemade manager gave an ill-mannered grunt, and turned his back on one of the most distinctive noteand mysterious features of the Colmar Mine!

"Allow me, captain," said Searle, recovering his scattered senses, and unlocking the door. When he turned round he caught Trevaskis' eyes fixed on the passage with a puzzled look. This was balm to Searle's wounded feelings, and he instantly attacked the subject once more. "Did you ever see the like of that at a mine before, captain?" he asked briskly.

"I can't say that I have. What is it for?"

"You see the length of it–or at least you would if the wind was not so thick with dust. It is three hundred and twenty feet in length–three hundred and twenty feet–six feet high and six feet wideand––"

"But what the devil is it for?"

But Searle, who never stopped talking as long as he could get a listener, was too often forced to tell a thrice-told tale.note He was consequently not inclined to waste a subject so criminally as to come so soon to the point.

"You see this key, captain?" he said, holding up one of the door-keys on the manager's bunch that was smaller than the rest. "Well, that key opens this door at the end of your office, and when you open that door you're in the passage. You go along that passage for three hundred and twenty feet, and then you come to a cave–notea regular cave made into a notegood-sized room–scooped out of the side of the reef, and ventilated with a notestope,note full of old machinery that belonged to the English company–a couple of furnaces, retorts, blanket tables, a bunk near the entrance, a table, a chair––"

Searle paused to take breath. He fully expected that before he had reached so far in his description, Trevaskis would have set off down the passage to examine the place for himself. But instead of this his face wore a look of stony indifference.

"It's simply marvellous!" he gasped, making a despairing effort to infect his listener with a little becoming enthusiasm.

"What is marvellous?"

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"Why, that big underground place notescooped out of the side of the reef, and connected with the manager's office by a passage three hundred and twenty––"

"noteDamn the three hundred and twenty feet!" cried Trevaskis, in a tone of intense irritation. "What is the thing used for?"

"First there was some sort of natural cave, they say, and this was much enlarged. noteThis enlargement was noteundertaken by noteDoolan," returned Searle, in a grave, unmoved, historical kind of voice. "That was before my time. They notesay he felt the heat dreadfully, and used to stay down there cool and quiet, without noise or dust, when the thermometer went above 115° in the shade. The next manager took it into his head that he got on the track of a good lode there, and set some men to work it. This made the place still larger, but I don't know about the gold. There were a lot of queer yarns floating round, I believe."

"Did you ever know a mine that hadn't a bagful of lies told about it every week?" said Trevaskis, who was longing for an opportunity to have done with these reminiscences of his predecessors.

"Well, every manager that comes seems to think the one before him was a fool or a rogue."

"I think some of the managers you've had here were both," said Trevaskis. "I'm sure the man who made this passage––"

"Ah, I'm coming to that. This passage was made by Webster––"

"What! the man who turned miser here, and then went mad?"

"The same, captain. I don't want to make anyone out blacker than he is, but I'd just like to tell you what I know myself personally––"

"Thank you, I'm afraid I haven't got time to-day," answered Trevaskis, pulling out his watch. "We must confine ourselves for the rest of the time to business. It isn't a very cheerful subject. Webster became a raving lunatic; Dunning was killed in the twinkling of an eye. It only remains for me to cut my throat to finish up the record. Well, I only came for a month to try it. I don't fancy I shall stay longer than that."

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Never had Searle been more bitterly disappointed in his anticipations of acting as showman to the Colmar Mine. It was bad enough to treat the cave room and the passage three hundred and twenty feet long with surly contempt, but to have the history of Webster–of whom Searle could never think without a certain shiver in the marrow of his backbone–put by and passed over like an old woman's ghost story! The little man's heart swelled within him, and he went through the rest of his duties with Trevaskis observing the most dignified reserve.

When at half-past one he watched Trevaskis going to dinner at the Colmar Arms with a lowering brow and a set look on his face, the purser, though the least vindictive of men, felt assured that if the new captain took himself off at the end of a month he would be no loss to good-fellowship–an opinion he felt no scruple in expressing to the engineer, with whom he boarded at the three-roomed weather-board hut of one of the shift bosses close to the mine.

"I believe you're right there, Tom," said the engineer. "You see, he was at the top of the tree a short time ago in town. I think having to come here has put him off his chump so much he'll never have a civil word to throw at a dog.note But as to chucking up note£600 with times so bad–why, that's another matter."

This was exactly the aspect of the case which was at that moment forcing itself on Trevaskis. When he reached the Colmar Arms, he was met at the front door by the landlady, a lean, untidy looking woman with a very tired and discouraged face, who showed him into the dining-room talking all the time.

"I thought you was the new captain. Long Ben the driver told us noteas you 'ad come, but I didn't think as you was coming to dinner, not bein' 'ere at one. Poor Cap'en Dunning always come at one to the minute. Did you 'ear, sir, as he 'adn't gone half an hour from the Colmar Arms, after a dinner of young duck and cauliflower, when he was called away into eternity, so to speak?"

"Ever since I came within a hundred miles of the Colmar, every soul I see tells me about Dunning's sudden death! And now, if you please, I want a little dinner," said Trevaskis.

The landlady, with subdued volubility, said she would do the best she could, but she had expected him at one. Poor Cap'en

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Dunning always came so regular at one, and things was very mixed with them then at the Arms. They had just moved into the front part, which the cap'en no doubt noticed was of stone. The baby, who was a little over two year old, was cutting some back teeth; the cook had married at an hour's notice, just because there was a man handy to have her, and a Methodynote parson chanced to pass through; and the housemaid was down with a bad cold. These details were imparted in detachments, while the good woman placed on the table half a dozen fried chops, a loaf of bread, a two-pound tin of apricot jam, a pound of oily butter, and a large Britannia metalnote teapot half full of coarse lukewarm tea.

The new manager made a valiant effort to make some sort of a meal off these viands. But the attempt only sickened him and took away all appetite. The chops were tough, raw, cold, and greasy, the tea barkynote and bitter, the milk slightly sour. Trevaskis pushed away the meat, and drew the jam towards him. There were two large flies firmly embedded on the surface. . . . They were everywhere, these flies, large and small, buzzing in his ears and eyes–great flesh-flies beating heavily against the window-panes. The big bare room, with a long table covered with a spotted cloth and an array of dim glasses; the woman in the soiled print dress, with her dull, jaded face and wearied eyes, and the whining child dragging at her skirts; the smell of raw notecolza oilnote in the new paint, of damp mortar in the newly built walls; the burst of loutish merriment that came wafted from time to time through the open notedoors from the bar-room; the look of the country as seen through the window–all weighed on the man's mind like a hideous nightmare. He had been deeply miserable and irritated all day–indeed, for many days back. But at this moment it was no longer misery, it was notedespair, and fell on him.

"Good God! what a hole to come to after all these years!" muttered Trevaskis to himself. He was a stalwart, powerfully-built man, with a long and rather narrow face, the lower part completely covered with a thick grizzled beard and moustache. His nose was long, and slightly curved a little to one side at the end, through an accident in early life. His eyes were pale, with a

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greenish light in them, keen in expression, and very close together. In moments of excitement the pupils would seem to elongate in a way that gave notehim rather a sinister look. The head was well formed, the forehead square. Ordinarily he had the alert, determined air of one who does not let his thoughts travel beyond the matter in hand, noteno superfluous words or imagination to bestow on any subject beyond his own especial routine. But just now his face wore the strained and haggard look of one who notehad been badly beaten in the race of life. The landlady, seeing that he had eaten nothing, brought in a plate of biscuits and some cheese. But Trevaskis gruffly declined notethese delicacies, and ordered her to bring him some whisky and soda-water. Then he lit a strong Havana cigar, and as he smoked and sipped notehis whisky his courage revived. He would face the risk of being out of employment and out of pocket in civilized life rather than stay on at the Colmar. The directors, in their eagerness to secure him, had employed him on his own terms. It would be better to let them know at once he would not stay beyond the month.

He pulled a large flat pocket-book out of the breast-pocket of his coat, and turned over some papers, looking for a blank half-sheet on which to draw up a draft of the communication he would send on the morrow. The first letter that caught his eye was one from his brother, expressing rather clumsily the pleasure it gave him to hear Trevaskis had got a good job with high wages. Dick, he said, was getting on well in the bank, and they were both grateful to him for the billet.

It was a very illiterate, ill-spelt scrawl, and notebrought back to Trevaskis the days of his early boyhood, when he and his brother worked together in a Cornish mine. It was a squalid, hard life–both of them unkempt and uncared for, their mother dead, their father rough and intemperate. From eight years of age till sixteen, noteTrevaskis thought, that was a long spell to work twelve hours out of the twenty-four–often hungry, most of the time barefooted.note Then he reviewed his long fight for wealth in Australia. Poverty and the squalor of his early life had so bitten into him that he had sworn a great oath he would make himself

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independent–yes, and rich, as many another had done in the Southern Hemisphere.

And gradually through long years of ascetic abstinence and the most rigid self-denial he achieved his purpose. He stuck to mining; it was the work he understood best–first on the tribute plan,note then on claims of his own; and all his money as he saved it he put into careful investments. He had gone almost hungry, certainly very dirty, and in very broken boots, once when he was working in a poor patch of country, which did not yield "tucker" money.note And yet at that time the savings on which he would not encroach had swelled to £4,000. After that crisis his gains had increased by leaps and bounds. And at last, after seventeen years of toilsome lonely work and rigid saving, he found himself the master of over £60,000. He had determined he would have enough to live on like a gentleman before he left the Bush.

When he did so he lived in Adelaide, rented a handsome house, kept his carriage, went into Parliament, and married the daughter of a well-to-do doctor, "a lady born," as he often proudly said to himself. Even if he had known–and he did not–that his father-in-law was the son of a retired butcher,note the knowledge would not have modified this exultant feeling. His long apprenticeship to work in its grimiest form, moiling in the dirt with soiled skin and filthy clothing, made him keenly sensible of all the graces and pleasantness of affluence. He never quite lost his first vivid impression of delight in the soft ease, the luxury, the perfect cleanliness of well-to-do households. The feel of soft carpets underfoot, the gleam of pictures on the walls, the glitter of silver on the table, the taste of dainty food well cooked, the rustle of ladies' silken gowns, the gleam of jewels on their arms and necks: these things would always have a higher worth for him than for those to whom they were familiar from childhood. To him they represented the highest good, the greatest enjoyment, of which noteman is capable. They were the symbol of that privileged exalted life of which his forefathers had caught passing glimpses behind barred gates and through the corridors leading from servants' halls.

"And, after all, I've come back to it again–this notedamned mucky life among dirty labourers, and in a worse place than I've

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ever set foot in before. I might as well be a wombat in an earthed-up burrow," he said to himself, closing up his pocket-book. He could not frame a draft of the letter he thought of writing; the fear of absolute want stared him in the face. He could do nothing but ponder in bitterness of heart on the record of his life: his twenty-five years of ignominious toil, his aspirations, his determination to succeed, his eight years of complete and assured success, and then his complete and bitter failure. He took up his hat, and, crushing it over his eyes, strode away to the lonely, cheerless rooms that now formed his only home.