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Grif: A Story of Colonial Life

Chapter XI. The New Rush

page 151

Chapter XI. The New Rush.

Early in the morning, the plains were busy with moving life. “Take up thy bed and walk,” was literally illustrated by thousands of eager men. Log fires were blazing, chops and steaks were frizzling, and boiling tea was impatiently bubbling in the queerest of utensils. Scant time was given to breakfast; scantier time was employed in rolling up blankets; and less time still was occupied in throwing heavy swags over broad backs, and starting on the march to the promised land. But one operation all performed, and all took time in performing. When everything was adjusted, a black stump of a pipe was carefully produced, carefully loaded, and carefully lighted by the aid of a burning branch. Then, refreshed by their first pipe, the venturers whistled away dull care, and “stumped it” at the rate of four miles an hour. It was a lovely summer morning. The sun was rising over a snow-capped range, which reared its head in the distance, a picture of beauty. As the warm rays fell upon the face of the moss-clad giant, rills of sparkling snowdrops gemmed it with myriad silver tears. It was a marvellous picture. But few stayed to pay it tribute. Among the few, a ragged German, upon whose shoulders were placed all his worldly treasure—a tent, a couple of blankets, and a flat-faced, stolid-looking little boy, who, as his father pointed to the range, crowed and clapped his hands at the glorious sight.

page 152

When evening came, and they were within twenty miles of the New Rush, Richard Handfield and the Welsher halted at a wayside inn, which had been hastily run up, and which was dignified by the title of the Amphitheatre Hotel. It was the only building for miles around, and stood in the midst of an amphitheatre of hills. The inn was crowded. Men were recklessly squandering their money in a state of the wildest excitement. It was said that the proprietors were taking a couple of hundred pounds a day. At ten o'clock at night, Richard and his mate were standing by the door of the Amphitheatre Hotel. The riotous noise within the hotel precluded all idea of sleep; so they stood there, looking at the moon, whose brightness was hardly dimmed by a screen of light-floating clouds, and talking over the chances of their being able to get a claim upon the “lead” at the New Rush. What is that in the distance? A white object. Moving? Yes, and moving fast. Running, racing, like one demented. White trowsers, white guernsey, bare arms, and bare head—running like mad, under the white face of the moon. Who can he be? Where has he come from? Is he mad? All the inmates of the calico hotel come out to the door, waiting for the racer. And here he is, panting, his strong chest heaving, his brawny arms waving, his blue eyes glaring! “Well, mate, what's the row? What's up?” Without returning any answer to these questions, the racing individual points in the direction of the New Rush, whence he has come, and gasps out, “There—got a claim—heaps of gold—saw a bucketful dug up just before I left—off to fetch my page 153 mates!” And off he is, without—wonder of wonders! stopping to drink. There he goes, racing off to fetch his mates: a large white speck dotting the plain beyond—a small white speck—a smaller white speck—an infinitesimal white speck—no speck at all! Meanwhile, the conversation has become very animated. They all thought so—that was the real El Dorado—they had been waiting for it for a long while, and here it was at last. Anecdotes are related as authentic, of fortunes made in a week, in a day, in an hour. Goodness knows how the information has been obtained, but suddenly those men are relating to one another wonderful accounts of thousands of ounces obtained by single individuals at the New Rush, although, before the arrival of the racing individual, they did not appear to know very much about the new field. Gradually the conversation dies out, and the diggers retire to their rest. Nothing disturbs the stillness of the night. The scene is so lovely that it might serve for the kingdom of Dreamland. On the top of yon lofty mountain stands an old castle, wrapped about, grim shadow as it is, by the soft moonlight. Near it, each rugged rock and stone assumes a living shape. Why creep they away so stealthily? Are they rock or human? Psha! They are but two diggers, who, excited by the news, have given up all thoughts of sleep, and are stealing away to the New Rush, so that they may not be too late for the chance of digging up a bucketful of gold!

At noon on the following day, Richard and the Welsher arrived on the ground. There were thousands of diggers there, and a long street of calico stores was already page 154 erected to supply their wants. As the new arrivals poured in, they had to traverse this street, which commenced at the mouth of the main road, so that it presented a very animated appearance, and was always thronged. Flags of all nations, and flags of no nations, were waving over the stores, many of which rejoiced in high sounding titles. There were the Great Wonder, the Little Wonder, the Wonder of the World, and a great quantity of other Wonders. There were the Monster Emporium (which, properly, would represent an Emporium for Monsters); the Blue Store, and the Red Store (which were impositions, for they were built of unbleached calico); and the Bee Hive, which looked like one, for it was crowded with customers. There was the Right Man in the Right Place, which was the sign of a stationer's store, where old newspapers were being sold at exhorbitant prices, and where you had to pay half-a-crown for two sheets of notepaper, two envelopes, and a pen. This store was also a kind of post-office, where you might deposit letters on payment of one shilling each, and receive them, if there were any to receive, at the same price. There were half-a-dozen auctioneers, going, going, going, with all their might. There were scores of draymen unloading their drays, and blocking up the road with cases. There was a horse sale-yard, where horses were being galloped madly up and down, to the infinite risk of life and limb; and wherein the salesman talked the most outrageous nonsense, and told the most outrageous fibs, as to the wonderful qualities of the cattle he was anxious to dispose of. There were scores of hotels and restaurants for the accommodation of the page 155 natives of almost every nation under the sun. There were the Hibernian, the Spanish, the French, the American, and a host of others. Those who could not find their native clime indicated on the broad strips of calico in front of the stores, might console themselves at the All Nations; while philanthropists might rest their weary limbs at the Live and Let Live.

Forcing their way through the bustling crowd, Richard Handfield and the Welsher soon reached the end of the straggling street of stores, and came upon the diggings. These were situated upon a great plain, which was dotted with strong sun-burnt men, straining at windlasses. Round some of the claims, small knots of diggers were congregated, waiting eagerly for the “prospect.” One claim had just been bottomed on the “lead,” and great excitement was produced by the statement that the first bucketful of stuff had yielded a prospect of twelve pennyweights of gold. There was no chance of getting a claim near the spot, for the ground was marked out for a mile around, so the newcomers had to walk on until they came to a less busy part of the plain. A claim was there soon measured and marked out with pegs, and the orthodox custom of sticking the pick in the centre was duly performed. Then Richard and his mate went in search of a spot to put up their tent, and before evening their house was built and their work commenced.

Night was a busy time in the township. The bars of the calico restaurants and hotels were crowded, and money was lavishly squandered in the dancing saloons and concert rooms, with which the township abounded. page 156 The fever excitement of a new rush is most intense: men grow frantic from mere contagion. There was one free-and-easy concert room, crammed with diggers, who shouted out the choruses to the songs, and who smoked and drank amidst a very babel of riot and noise. One man, a little excitable Frenchman, had drunk himself into a state of madness. He called for a dozen of champagne, and, knocking the necks off half the bottles, poured the wine upon the ground; and three minutes afterwards, in a wild delirium, he lighted his pipe with a five pound note.

So days and weeks passed, and every day and every week the goldfield grew and grew, until it extended over many miles. Hills and gullies were prospected and rushed, and in some instances were deserted almost as soon as rushed. Meanwhile, the Welsher and Richard Handfield had hit upon a tolerably good claim, and were working at it steadily and hopefully. There were three in the party now. They had taken a new mate, whose name was Steve—Honest Steve, he said he was called. At times, the face of Honest Steve puzzled Richard Handfield; he fancied he had seen it before, but he could not recollect where. He once or twice mentioned this casually, but Honest Steve was certain they had never met; and so the three kept together until the claim was worked out.