It was all settled that night, and some necessary purchases made. Ahalala was twenty-three miles from Nobble, and a coach had been established through the bush for the benefit of miners going to the diggings; — but Mick was of opinion that miners ought to walk, with their swag on their backs, when the distance was not more than forty miles. ‘You look so foolish getting out of one of them rattletrap coaches,’ he said, ‘and everybody axing whether you’re going to pick for yourself or buy a share in a claim. I’m all for walking — if it ain’t beneath you.’ They declared themselves quite ready to walk, and under Mick’s guidance they went out and bought two large red blankets and two pannikins. Mick declared that if they went without swags on their backs and pannikins attached to their swags, they would be regarded with evil eyes by all who saw them. There were some words about the portmanteaus. Mick proposed that they should be left for the entire month in the charge of Mrs. Henniker, and, when this was pronounced impossible, he was for a while disposed to be off the bargain. Caldigate declared that, with all his ambition to be a miner, he must have a change of shirts. Then Mick pointed to the swag. Couldn’t he put another shirt into the swag? It was at last settled that one portmanteau should be sent by the coach, and one left in the charge of Mrs. Henniker. ‘Them sort of traps ain’t never any good, in my mind,’ said Mick. ‘It’s unmanly, having all them togs. I like a wash as well as any man — trousers, jersey, drawers, and all. I’m always at ’em when I get a place for a rinse by the side of a creek. But when my things are so gone that they won’t hang on comfortable any longer, I chucks ’em away and buys more. Two jerseys is good, and two drawers is good, because of wet. Boots is awkward, and I allays does with one pair. Some have two, and ties ’em on with the pannikin. But it ain’t ship-shape. Them’s my ideas, and I’ve been at it these nine years. You’ll come to the same.’
The three started the next morning at six, duly invested with their swags. Before they went they found Mrs. Henniker up, with hot tea, boiled beef, and damper. ‘Just one drop at starting — for the good of the house,’ said Mick, apologetically. Whereupon the whisky was brought, and Mick insisted on shouting for it out of his own pocket.
They had hardly gone a mile out of Nobble before Maggott started a little difficulty — merely for the purpose of solving it with a master’s hand. ‘There ain’t to be no misters among us, you know.’
‘Certainly not,’ said Caldigate.
‘My name’s Mick. This chap’s name’s Dick. I didn’t exactly catch your’n. I suppose you’ve been kursened.’
‘Yes; — they christened me John.’
‘Ain’t it never been Jack with you?’
‘I don’t think it ever was.’
‘John! It do sound lackadaisical. What I call womanish. But perhaps it’s for the better. We have such a lot of Jacks. There’s dirty Jack, and Jack the nigger, and Jack Misery — that’s poor Jack Brien; — and a lot more. Perhaps you wouldn’t like not another name of that sort.’
‘Well; no — unless it’s necessary.’
‘There ain’t another John about the place, as I know. I never knew a John down a mine — never. We’ll try it, anyhow.’
And so that was settled. As it happened, though Dick Shand had always been Dick to his friend, Caldigate had never, as yet, been either John or Jack to Dick Shand. There are men who fall into the way of being called by their Christian names, and others who never hear them except from their own family. But before the day was out, Caldigate had become John to both his companions. ‘It don’t sound as it ought to do; — not yet,’ said Mick, after he had tried it about a dozen times in five minutes.
Before the day was over it was clear that Mick Maggott had assumed the mastery. When three men start on an enterprise together, one man must be ‘boss.’ Let the republic be as few as it may one man must be president. And as Mick knew what he was about, he assumed the situation easily. The fact that he was to receive wages from the others had no bearing on the subject at all. Before they got to Ahalala, Caldigate had begun to appreciate all this, and to understand in part what they would have to do during this month, and how they would have to live. It was proposed that they should at once fix on a spot — ‘peg out a claim,’ on some unoccupied piece of ground, buy for themselves a small tent — of which they were assured that they would find many for sale — and then begin to sink a hole. When they entered Ahalala, Caldigate was surprised to find that Mick was the most tired of the three. It is always so. The man who has laboured from his youth upwards can endure with his arms. It is he who has had leisure to shoot, to play cricket, to climb up mountains and to handle a racket, that can walk. ‘Darned if you ain’t better stuff than I took you for,’ said Mick, as the three let the swags down from their backs on the veranda of Ridley’s hotel at Ahalala.
Ahalala was a very different place from Nobble — made Nobble seem to be almost a compact and prosperous city. At Nobble there was at any rate a street. But at Ahalala everything was straggling. The houses, such as they were, stood here and there about the place, while a great part of the population lived under canvas. And then Ahalala was decidedly in the forest. The trees around had not yet been altogether killed, nor had they been cut down in sufficient numbers to divest the place of its forest appearance. Ahalala was leafy, and therefore, though much less regular, also less hideous than Nobble. When Dick first made tender inquiry as to the comforts of an hotel, he was assured that there were at least a couple of dozen. But the place was bewildering. There seemed to be no beginning to it and no end. There were many tracks about here and there — but nothing which could be called a road. The number of holes was infinite — each hole covered by a rough windlass used for taking out the dirt, which was thrown loosely anywhere round the aperture. Here and there were to be seen little red flags stuck upon the end of poles. These indicated, as Mick informed them, those fortunate adventures in which gold had been found. At those very much more numerous hillocks which showed no red flag, the labourers were hitherto labouring in vain. There was a little tent generally near to each hillock in which the miners slept, packed nearly as close as sheep in a fold. As our party made its way through the midst of this new world to Ridley’s hotel, our friend observed many a miner sitting at his evening meal. Each generally had a frying-pan between his legs, out of which he was helping himself to meat which he had cooked on the ashes just behind him. Sometimes two or three were sharing their provisions out of the same frying-pan; but as a rule each miner had his own, and each had it between his legs.
Before they had been at Ahalala twenty-four hours they also had their tent and their frying-pan and their fire, and had pegged out their claim, and were ready to commence operations on the morrow. It was soon manifest to Caldigate and Dick Shand that they would have been very much astray without a ‘boss’ to direct them. Three or four hours had been passed in forming a judgment as to the spot on which they should commence to dig. And in making his choice Mick had been guided by many matters as to which our two adventurers were altogether ignorant. It might be that Mick was equally so; but he at any rate assumed some knowledge. He looked to the fall of the ground, the line in which the red flags were to be traced — if any such line could be found — and was possessed of a considerable amount of jargon as to topographical mining secrets. At last they found a spot, near a creek, surrounded by forest-trees, perhaps three hundred yards from the nearest adjacent claim, and, as Mick declared, in a direct line with three red flags. Here they determined to commence their operations. ‘I don’t suppose we shall do any good,’ said Caldigate to Dick, ‘but we must make a beginning, if only for the sake of hardening our hands. We shall be learning something at the time even though we only shovel up so much mud.’
For a fortnight they shovelled up the soil continuously without any golden effects, and, so far, without any feeling of disappointment. Mick had told them that if they found a speck at the end of three weeks they would be very fortunate. They had their windlass, and they worked in relays; one man at the bottom, one man at the wheel, and one man idle. In this way they kept up their work during eighteen hours of the day. Each man in this way worked twelve hours, and had twelve for sleeping, and cooking, and eating. Other occupation they had none. During the fortnight neither of them went any further distance from their claim than to the neighbouring shop. Mick often expressed his admiration at their continued industry, not understanding the spirit which will induce such young men as them to work, even when the work is agonising. And they were equally charmed with Mick’s sobriety and loyalty. Not a word had been said as to hours of work — and yet he was as constant to their long hours as though the venture was his own — as though there was no question of wages.
‘We ain’t had a drop o’ drink yet,’ said Mick one night. ‘Ain’t we a holding off like Britons?’ There was great triumph in his voice as he said this; — very great triumph, but, also, as Caldigate thought, a sound of longing also. They were now in their third week, and the word whisky had never been pronounced between them. At this moment, when Mick’s triumphant ejaculation was uttered, they were all lying — in bed. It shall be called bed by way of compliment. They had bought a truss of straw, which Mick had declared to be altogether unnecessary and womanish, and over that was laid a white india-rubber sheet which Caldigate had brought with him from England. This, too, had roused the miner’s wrath. Nevertheless he condescended to lie upon it. This was their bed; and here they lay, each wrapped up in his blanket, Mick in the middle, with our two friends at the sides. Now it was not only on Mick’s account, but quite as much in reference to Dick Shand, that Caldigate deprecated any reference to drink. The abstention hitherto had been marvellous. He himself would have gone daily to the store for a bottle of beer, but that he recognised the expediency of keeping them away from the place. He had heard that it was a peculiarity of the country that all labour was done without drink, even when it was done by determined drunkards. The drunkard would work for a month, and then drink for a month — and then, after a time, would die. The drink almost always consisted of spirits of the worst description. It seemed to be recognised by the men that work and drink must be kept separate. But Mick’s mind travelled away on this occasion from the little tent to the delights of Ridley’s bar. ‘We haven’t had a drop of drink yet,’ he said.
‘We’ll push through the month without it; — eh, old boy?’ said Caldigate.
‘What wouldn’t I give for a pint of bitter beer?’ said Shand.
‘Or a bottle of Battleaxe between the three of us!’ said Mick; — Battleaxe being the name for a certain brand of brandy.
‘Not a drop till the month is over,’ said Caldigate turning himself round in his blanket. Then there were whisperings between the other two men, of which he could only hear the hum.
On the next morning at six Caldigate and Dick Shand were at the hole together. It was Caldigate’s turn to work till noon, whereas Dick went off at nine, and Mick would come on from nine till three. At nine Mick did not make his appearance, and Dick declared his purpose of looking after him. Caldigate also threw down his tools, as he could not work alone, and went in search. The upshot of it was, that he did not see either of his companions again till he found them both very drunk at a drinking-shop about two miles away from their claim, just before dusk!
This was terrible. He did at last succeed in bringing back his own friend to the tent, having, however, a sad task in doing so. But Mick Maggott would not be moved. He had his wits about him enough to swear that he cared for nothing. He was going to have a spree. Nobody had ever known him to be talked out of it when he had once set his mind upon it. He had set his mind upon it now, and he meant to have his whack. This was what he said of himself: ‘It ain’t no good, John. It ain’t no good at all, John. Don’t you trouble yourself, John. I’m going to have it out, John, so I tell you.’ This he said, nodding his head about in a maudlin sort of way, and refusing to allow himself to be moved.
On the next day Dick Shand was sick, repentant, and idle. On the third, he returned to his work — working however, with difficulty. After that, he fairly recovered himself, and the two Cambridge men went on resolutely at their hole. They soon found how hard it was not to go astray without their instructed mate. The sides of the shaft became crooked and uneven, and the windlass sometimes could not be made to work. But still they persevered, and went on by themselves for an entire week without a sign of gold. During this time various fruitless expeditions were made by both the men in search of Maggott. He was still at the same drinking-shop, but could not be induced to leave it. At last they found him with the incipient horrors of delirium tremens, and yet they could not get him away. The man who kept the place was quite used to delirium tremens, and thought nothing about it. When Caldigate tried a high moral tone everybody around him laughed at him.
They had been digging for a month, and still without a speck of gold, when, one morning early, Mick appeared in front of the tent. It was then about eight, and our friends had stopped their work to eat their breakfast. The poor man, without saying a word, came and crouched down before them; — not in shame — not at all that; but apparently in an agony of sickness — ‘I’ve had my bout,’ he said.
‘I don’t suppose you’re much the better for it,’ replied Caldigate.
‘No; I ain’t none the better. I thought it was all up with me yesterday. Oh, laws! I’ve had it heavy this time.’
‘Why are you such a fool?’
‘Well; — you see, John, some of us is born fools. I’m one of ’em. You needn’t tell me, ‘cause I know all about it without any sermoning. Nobody don’t know it so well as I do! How should they? If you had my inside now — and my head! Oh, laws!’
‘Give it up, man.’
‘That’s easy said; — as if I wouldn’t if I could. I haven’t got a blessed coin left to buy a bite of bread with — and I couldn’t touch a morsel if I had ever so much. I’ll take my blanket and be off as soon as I can move.’ All this time he had been crouching, but now he threw himself at length upon the ground.
Of course they did what they could for the poor wretch. They got him into the tent, and they made him swallow some tea. Then he slept; and in the course of the afternoon he had so far recovered as to be able to eat a bit of meat. Then, when his companions were at their work, he carefully packed up his swag, and fastening it on to his back, appeared by the side of the hole. ‘I’m come to bid you good-bye he said.
‘Where are you going, Mick?’ asked Caldigate, climbing up out of the hole by the rope.
‘I’m blessed if I know, but I’m off. You are getting that hole tarnation crooked.’
The man was going without any allusion to the wages he had earned, or to the work that he had done. But then, in truth, he had not earned his wages, as he had broken his contract. He made no complaint, however, and no apology, but was prepared to start.
‘That’s all nonsense,’ said Dick, catching hold of him.
‘You put your swag down,’ said Caldigate, also catching hold of the other shoulder.
‘What am I to put my swag down for? I’m a-going back to Nobble. Crinkett’ll give me work.’
‘You’re not going to leave us in that way,’ said Dick.
‘Stop and make the shaft straight,’ said Caldigate. The man looked irresolute. ‘Friends are not to part like that.’
‘Friends!’ said the poor fellow. ‘Who’ll be friends to such a beast as I be? But I’ll stay out the month if you’ll find me my grub.’
‘You shall have your grub and your money, too. Do you think we’ve forgotten the potatoes?’
‘—— the potatoes,’ said the man, bursting into tears. Then he chucked away his swag, and threw himself under the tent upon the straw. The next day he was making things as straight as he could down the shaft.
When they had been at work about five weeks there was a pole stuck into their heap of dirt, and on the top of the pole there was a little red flag flying. At about thirty feet from the surface, when they had already been obliged to insert transverse logs in the shaft to prevent the sides from falling in, they had come upon a kind of soil altogether different from the ordinary clay through which they had been working. There was a stratum of loose shingle or gravelly earth, running apparently in a sloping direction, taking the decline of the very slight hill on which their claim was situated. Mick, as soon as this was brought to light, became an altered man. The first bucket of this stuff that was pulled up was deposited by him separately, and he at once sat down to wash it. This he did in an open tin pan. Handful after handful he washed, shifting and teasing it about in the pan, and then he cast it out, always leaving some very small residuum. He was intent upon his business to a degree that Caldigate would have thought to be beyond the man’s nature. With extreme patience he went on washing handful after handful all the day, while the other two pulled up fresh buckets of the same stuff. He would not pause to eat, or hardly to talk. At last there came a loud exclamation. ‘By —— — we’ve got it!’ Then Dick and Caldigate, stooping down, were shown four or five little specks in the angle of the pan’s bottom. Before the sun had set they had stuck up their little red flag, and a crowd of neighbours was standing round them asking questions as to their success.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14