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Henry Lawson
1867 - 1922

   

The Golden Graveyard

by Henry Lawson



   
 

MOTHER MIDDLETON was an awful woman, an ‘old hand’ (transported convict) some said. The prefix ‘mother’ in Australia mostly means ‘old hag’, and is applied in that sense. In early boyhood we understood, from old diggers, that Mother Middleton—in common with most other ‘old hands’—had been sent out for ‘knocking a donkey off a hen-roost.’ We had never seen a donkey. She drank like a fish and swore like a trooper when the spirit moved her; she went on periodical sprees, and swore on most occasions. There was a fearsome yarn, which impressed us greatly as boys, to the effect that once, in her best (or worst) days, she had pulled a mounted policeman off his horse, and half-killed him with a heavy pick-handle, which she used for poking down clothes in her boiler. She said that he had insulted her.

She could still knock down a tree and cut a load of firewood with any Bushman; she was square and muscular, with arms like a navvy’s; she had often worked shifts, below and on top, with her husband, when he’d be putting down a prospecting shaft without a mate, as he often had to do—because of her mainly. Old diggers said that it was lovely to see how she’d spin up a heavy green-hide bucket full of clay and ‘tailings’, and land and empty it with a twist of her wrist. Most men were afraid of her, and few diggers’ wives were strong-minded enough to seek a second row with Mother Middleton. Her voice could be heard right across Golden Gully and Specimen Flat, whether raised in argument or in friendly greeting. She came to the old Pipeclay diggings with the ‘rough crowd’ (mostly Irish), and when the old and new Pipeclays were worked out, she went with the rush to Gulgong (about the last of the great alluvial or ‘poor-man’s’ goldfields) and came back to Pipeclay when the Log Paddock goldfield ‘broke out’, adjacent to the old fields, and so helped prove the truth of the old digger’s saying, that no matter how thoroughly ground has been worked, there is always room for a new Ballarat.

Jimmy Middleton died at Log Paddock, and was buried, about the last, in the little old cemetery—appertaining to the old farming town on the river, about four miles away—which adjoined the district racecourse, in the Bush, on the far edge of Specimen Flat. She conducted the funeral. Some said she made the coffin, and there were alleged jokes to the effect that her tongue had provided the corpse; but this, I think, was unfair and cruel, for she loved Jimmy Middleton in her awful way, and was, for all I ever heard to the contrary, a good wife to him. She then lived in a hut in Log Paddock, on a little money in the bank, and did sewing and washing for single diggers.

I remember hearing her one morning in neighbourly conversation, carried on across the gully, with a selector, Peter Olsen, who was hopelessly slaving to farm a dusty patch in the scrub.

‘Why don’t you chuck up that dust-hole and go up country and settle on good land, Peter Olsen? You’re only slaving your stomach out here.’ (She didn’t say stomach.)

Peter Olsen (mild-whiskered little man, afraid of his wife): ‘But then you know my wife is so delicate, Mrs Middleton. I wouldn’t like to take her out in the Bush.’

Mrs Middleton: ‘Delicate, be damned! she’s only shamming!’ (at her loudest.) ‘Why don’t you kick her off the bed and the book out of her hand, and make her go to work? She’s as delicate as I am. Are you a man, Peter Olsen, or a——?’

This for the edification of the wife and of all within half a mile.

Long Paddock was ‘petering’. There were a few claims still being worked down at the lowest end, where big, red-and-white waste-heaps of clay and gravel, rising above the blue-grey gum-bushes, advertised deep sinking; and little, yellow, clay-stained streams, running towards the creek over the drought-parched surface, told of trouble with the water below—time lost in baling and extra expense in timbering. And diggers came up with their flannels and moleskins yellow and heavy, and dripping with wet ‘mullock’.

Most of the diggers had gone to other fields, but there were a few prospecting, in parties and singly, out on the flats and amongst the ridges round Pipeclay. Sinking holes in search of a new Ballarat.

Dave Regan—lanky, easy-going Bush native; Jim Bently— a bit of a ‘Flash Jack’; and Andy Page—a character like what ‘Kit’ (in the Old Curiosity Shop) might have been after a voyage to Australia and some Colonial experience. These three were mates from habit and not necessity, for it was all shallow sinking where they worked. They were poking down pot-holes in the scrub in the vicinity of the racecourse, where the sinking was from ten to fifteen feet.

Dave had theories—‘ideers’ or ‘notions’ he called them; Jim Bently laid claim to none—he ran by sight, not scent, like a kangaroo-dog. Andy Page—by the way, great admirer and faithful retainer of Dave Regan— was simple and trusting, but, on critical occasions, he was apt to be obstinately, uncomfortably, exasperatingly truthful, honest, and he had reverence for higher things.

Dave thought hard all one quiet drowsy Sunday afternoon, and next morning he, as head of the party, started to sink a hole as close to the cemetery fence as he dared. It was a nice quiet spot in the thick scrub, about three panels along the fence from the farthest corner post from the road. They bottomed here at nine feet, and found encouraging indications. They ‘drove’ (tunnelled) inwards at right angles to the fence, and at a point immediately beneath it they were ‘making tucker’; a few feet farther and they were making wages. The old alluvial bottom sloped gently that way. The bottom here, by the way, was shelving, brownish, rotten rock.

Just inside the cemetery fence, and at right angles to Dave’s drive, lay the shell containing all that was left of the late fiercely lamented James Middleton, with older graves close at each end. A grave was supposed to be six feet deep, and local gravediggers had been conscientious. The old alluvial bottom sloped from nine to fifteen feet here.

Dave worked the ground all round from the bottom of his shaft, timbering—i.e., putting in a sapling prop—here and there where he worked wide; but the ‘payable dirt’ ran in under the cemetery, and in no other direction.

Dave, Jim, and Andy held a consultation in camp over their pipes after tea, as a result of which Andy next morning rolled up his swag, sorrowfully but firmly shook hands with Dave and Jim, and started to tramp Out-Back to look for work on a sheep-station.

This was Dave’s theory—drawn from a little experience and many long yarns with old diggers:—

He had bottomed on a slope to an old original water-course, covered with clay and gravel from the hills by centuries of rains to the depth of from nine or ten to twenty feet; he had bottomed on a gutter running into the bed of the old buried creek, and carrying patches and streaks of ‘wash’ or gold-bearing dirt. If he went on he might strike it rich at any stroke of his pick; he might strike the rich ‘lead’ which was supposed to exist round there. (There was always supposed to be a rich lead round there somewhere. ‘There’s gold in them ridges yet—if a man can only git at it,’ says the toothless old relic of the Roaring Days.)

Dave might strike a ledge, ‘pocket’, or ‘pot-hole’ holding wash rich with gold. He had prospected on the opposite side of the cemetery, found no gold, and the bottom sloping upwards towards the graveyard. He had prospected at the back of the cemetery, found a few ‘colours’, and the bottom sloping downwards towards the point under the cemetery towards which all indications were now leading him. He had sunk shafts across the road opposite the cemetery frontage and found the sinking twenty feet and not a colour of gold. Probably the whole of the ground under the cemetery was rich—maybe the richest in the district. The old gravediggers had not been gold-diggers—besides, the graves, being six feet, would, none of them, have touched the alluvial bottom. There was nothing strange in the fact that none of the crowd of experienced diggers who rushed the district had thought of the cemetery and racecourse. Old brick chimneys and houses, the clay for the bricks of which had been taken from sites of subsequent goldfields, had been put through the crushing-mill in subsequent years and had yielded ‘payable gold’. Fossicking Chinamen were said to have been the first to detect a case of this kind.

Dave reckoned to strike the ‘lead’, or a shelf or ledge with a good streak of wash lying along it, at a point about forty feet within the cemetery. But a theory in alluvial gold-mining was much like a theory in gambling, in some respects. The theory might be right enough, but old volcanic disturbances— ‘the shrinkage of the earth’s surface,’ and that sort of old thing— upset everything. You might follow good gold along a ledge, just under the grass, till it suddenly broke off and the continuation might be a hundred feet or so under your nose.

Had the ‘ground’ in the cemetery been ’open’ Dave would have gone to the point under which he expected the gold to lie, sunk a shaft there, and worked the ground. It would have been the quickest and easiest way—it would have saved the labour and the time lost in dragging heavy buckets of dirt along a low lengthy drive to the shaft outside the fence. But it was very doubtful if the Government could have been moved to open the cemetery even on the strongest evidence of the existence of a rich goldfield under it, and backed by the influence of a number of diggers and their backers— which last was what Dave wished for least of all. He wanted, above all things, to keep the thing shady. Then, again, the old clannish local spirit of the old farming town, rooted in years way back of the goldfields, would have been too strong for the Government, or even a rush of wild diggers.

‘We’ll work this thing on the strict Q.T.,’ said Dave.

He and Jim had a consultation by the camp fire outside their tent. Jim grumbled, in conclusion,—

‘Well, then, best go under Jimmy Middleton. It’s the shortest and straightest, and Jimmy’s the freshest, anyway.’

Then there was another trouble. How were they to account for the size of the waste-heap of clay on the surface which would be the result of such an extraordinary length of drive or tunnel for shallow sinkings? Dave had an idea of carrying some of the dirt away by night and putting it down a deserted shaft close by; but that would double the labour, and might lead to detection sooner than anything else. There were boys ‘possum-hunting on those flats every night. Then Dave got an idea.

There was supposed to exist—and it has since been proved— another, a second gold-bearing alluvial bottom on that field, and several had tried for it. One, the town watchmaker, had sunk all his money in ‘duffers’, trying for the second bottom. It was supposed to exist at a depth of from eighty to a hundred feet— on solid rock, I suppose. This watchmaker, an Italian, would put men on to sink, and superintend in person, and whenever he came to a little ‘colour’-showing shelf, or false bottom, thirty or forty feet down—he’d go rooting round and spoil the shaft, and then start to sink another. It was extraordinary that he hadn’t the sense to sink straight down, thoroughly test the second bottom, and if he found no gold there, to fill the shaft up to the other bottoms, or build platforms at the proper level and then explore them. He was living in a lunatic asylum the last time I heard of him. And the last time I heard from that field, they were boring the ground like a sieve, with the latest machinery, to find the best place to put down a deep shaft, and finding gold from the second bottom on the bore. But I’m right off the line again.

‘Old Pinter’, Ballarat digger—his theory on second and other bottoms ran as follows:—

‘Ye see, this here grass surface—this here surface with trees an’ grass on it, that we’re livin’ on, has got nothin’ to do with us. This here bottom in the shaller sinkin’s that we’re workin’ on is the slope to the bed of the new crick that was on the surface about the time that men was missin’ links. The false bottoms, thirty or forty feet down, kin be said to have been on the surface about the time that men was monkeys. The secon’ bottom— eighty or a hundred feet down—was on the surface about the time when men was frogs. Now——’

But it’s with the missing-link surface we have to do, and had the friends of the local departed known what Dave and Jim were up to they would have regarded them as something lower than missing-links.

‘We’ll give out we’re tryin’ for the second bottom,’ said Dave Regan. ‘We’ll have to rig a fan for air, anyhow, and you don’t want air in shallow sinkings.’

‘And some one will come poking round, and look down the hole and see the bottom,’ said Jim Bently.

‘We must keep ’em away,’ said Dave. ‘Tar the bottom, or cover it with tarred canvas, to make it black. Then they won’t see it. There’s not many diggers left, and the rest are going; they’re chucking up the claims in Log Paddock. Besides, I could get drunk and pick rows with the rest and they wouldn’t come near me. The farmers ain’t in love with us diggers, so they won’t bother us. No man has a right to come poking round another man’s claim: it ain’t ettykit—I’ll root up that old ettykit and stand to it— it’s rather worn out now, but that’s no matter. We’ll shift the tent down near the claim and see that no one comes nosing round on Sunday. They’ll think we’re only some more second-bottom lunatics, like Francea [the mining watchmaker]. We’re going to get our fortune out from under that old graveyard, Jim. You leave it all to me till you’re born again with brains.’

Dave’s schemes were always elaborate, and that was why they so often came to the ground. He logged up his windlass platform a little higher, bent about eighty feet of rope to the bole of the windlass, which was a new one, and thereafter, whenever a suspicious-looking party (that is to say, a digger) hove in sight, Dave would let down about forty feet of rope and then wind, with simulated exertion, until the slack was taken up and the rope lifted the bucket from the shallow bottom.

‘It would look better to have a whip-pole and a horse, but we can’t afford them just yet,’ said Dave.

But I’m a little behind. They drove straight in under the cemetery, finding good wash all the way. The edge of Jimmy Middleton’s box appeared in the top corner of the ‘face’ (the working end) of the drive. They went under the butt-end of the grave. They shoved up the end of the shell with a prop, to prevent the possibility of an accident which might disturb the mound above; they puddled—i.e., rammed— stiff clay up round the edges to keep the loose earth from dribbling down; and having given the bottom of the coffin a good coat of tar, they got over, or rather under, an unpleasant matter.

Jim Bently smoked and burnt paper during his shift below, and grumbled a good deal. ‘Blowed if I ever thought I’d be rooting for gold down among the blanky dead men,’ he said. But the dirt panned out better every dish they washed, and Dave worked the ‘wash’ out right and left as they drove.

But, one fine morning, who should come along but the very last man whom Dave wished to see round there—‘Old Pinter’ (James Poynton), Californian and Victorian digger of the old school. He’d been prospecting down the creek, carried his pick over his shoulder—threaded through the eye in the heft of his big-bladed, short-handled shovel that hung behind— and his gold-dish under his arm.

I mightn’t get a chance again to explain what a gold-dish and what gold-washing is. A gold washing-dish is a flat dish— nearer the shape of a bedroom bath-tub than anything else I have seen in England, or the dish we used for setting milk— I don’t know whether the same is used here: the gold-dish measures, say, eighteen inches across the top. You get it full of wash dirt, squat down at a convenient place at the edge of the water-hole, where there is a rest for the dish in the water just below its own depth. You sink the dish and let the clay and gravel soak a while, then you work and rub it up with your hands, and as the clay dissolves, dish it off as muddy water or mullock. You are careful to wash the pebbles in case there is any gold sticking to them. And so till all the muddy or clayey matter is gone, and there is nothing but clean gravel in the bottom of the dish. You work this off carefully, turning the dish about this way and that and swishing the water round in it. It requires some practice. The gold keeps to the bottom of the dish, by its own weight. At last there is only a little half-moon of sand or fine gravel in the bottom lower edge of the dish— you work the dish slanting from you. Presently the gold, if there was any in the dirt, appears in ‘colours’, grains, or little nuggets along the base of the half-moon of sand. The more gold there is in the dirt, or the coarser the gold is, the sooner it appears. A practised digger can work off the last speck of gravel, without losing a ‘colour’, by just working the water round and off in the dish. Also a careful digger could throw a handful of gold in a tub of dirt, and, washing it off in dishfuls, recover practically every colour.

The gold-washing ‘cradle’ is a box, shaped something like a boot, and the size of a travelling trunk, with rockers on, like a baby’s cradle, and a stick up behind for a handle; on top, where you’ll put your foot into the boot, is a tray with a perforated iron bottom; the clay and gravel is thrown on the tray, water thrown on it, and the cradle rocked smartly. The finer gravel and the mullock goes through and down over a sloping board covered with blanket, and with ledges on it to catch the gold. The dish was mostly used for prospecting; large quantities of wash dirt was put through the horse-power ‘puddling-machine’, which there isn’t room to describe here.

‘’Ello, Dave!’ said Pinter, after looking with mild surprise at the size of Dave’s waste-heap. ‘Tryin’ for the second bottom?’

‘Yes,’ said Dave, guttural.

Pinter dropped his tools with a clatter at the foot of the waste-heap and scratched under his ear like an old cockatoo, which bird he resembled. Then he went to the windlass, and resting his hands on his knees, he peered down, while Dave stood by helpless and hopeless.

Pinter straightened himself, blinking like an owl, and looked carelessly over the graveyard.

‘Tryin’ for a secon’ bottom,’ he reflected absently. ‘Eh, Dave?’

Dave only stood and looked black.

Pinter tilted back his head and scratched the roots of his chin-feathers, which stuck out all round like a dirty, ragged fan held horizontally.

‘Kullers is safe,’ reflected Pinter.

‘All right?’ snapped Dave. ‘I suppose we must let him into it.’

‘Kullers’ was a big American buck nigger, and had been Pinter’s mate for some time—Pinter was a man of odd mates; and what Pinter meant was that Kullers was safe to hold his tongue.

Next morning Pinter and his coloured mate appeared on the ground early, Pinter with some tools and the nigger with a windlass-bole on his shoulders. Pinter chose a spot about three panels or thirty feet along the other fence, the back fence of the cemetery, and started his hole. He lost no time for the sake of appearances, he sunk his shaft and started to drive straight for the point under the cemetery for which Dave was making; he gave out that he had bottomed on good ‘indications’ running in the other direction, and would work the ground outside the fence. Meanwhile Dave rigged a fan—partly for the sake of appearances, but mainly because his and Jim’s lively imaginations made the air in the drive worse than it really was. A ‘fan’ is a thing like a paddle-wheel rigged in a box, about the size of a cradle, and something the shape of a shoe, but rounded over the top. There is a small grooved wheel on the axle of the fan outside, and an endless line, like a clothes-line, is carried over this wheel and a groove in the edge of a high light wooden driving-wheel rigged between two uprights in the rear and with a handle to turn. That’s how the thing is driven. A wind-chute, like an endless pillow-slip, made of calico, with the mouth tacked over the open toe of the fan-box, and the end taken down the shaft and along the drive— this carries the fresh air into the workings.

Dave was working the ground on each side as he went, when one morning a thought struck him that should have struck him the day Pinter went to work. He felt mad that it hadn’t struck him sooner.

Pinter and Kullers had also shifted their tent down into a nice quiet place in the Bush close handy; so, early next Sunday morning, while Pinter and Kullers were asleep, Dave posted Jim Bently to watch their tent, and whistle an alarm if they stirred, and then dropped down into Pinter’s hole and saw at a glance what he was up to.

After that Dave lost no time: he drove straight on, encouraged by the thuds of Pinter’s and Kullers’ picks drawing nearer. They would strike his tunnel at right angles. Both parties worked long hours, only knocking off to fry a bit of steak in the pan, boil the billy, and throw themselves dressed on their bunks to get a few hours’ sleep. Pinter had practical experience and a line clear of graves, and he made good time. The two parties now found it more comfortable to be not on speaking terms. Individually they grew furtive, and began to feel criminal like—at least Dave and Jim did. They’d start if a horse stumbled through the Bush, and expected to see a mounted policeman ride up at any moment and hear him ask questions. They had driven about thirty-five feet when, one Saturday afternoon, the strain became too great, and Dave and Jim got drunk. The spree lasted over Sunday, and on Monday morning they felt too shaky to come to work and had more drink. On Monday afternoon, Kullers, whose shift it was below, stuck his pick through the face of his drive into the wall of Dave’s, about four feet from the end of it: the clay flaked away, leaving a hole as big as a wash-hand basin. They knocked off for the day and decided to let the other party take the offensive.

Tuesday morning Dave and Jim came to work, still feeling shaky. Jim went below, crawled along the drive, lit his candle, and stuck it in the spiked iron socket and the spike in the wall of the drive, quite close to the hole, without noticing either the hole or the increased freshness in the air. He started picking away at the ‘face’ and scraping the clay back from under his feet, and didn’t hear Kullers come to work. Kullers came in softly and decided to try a bit of cheerful bluff. He stuck his great round black face through the hole, the whites of his eyes rolling horribly in the candle-light, and said, with a deep guffaw—

‘’Ullo! you dar’?’

No bandicoot ever went into his hole with the dogs after him quicker than Jim came out of his. He scrambled up the shaft by the foot-holes, and sat on the edge of the waste-heap, looking very pale.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Dave. ‘Have you seen a ghost?’

‘I’ve seen the—the devil!’ gasped Jim. ‘I’m—I’m done with this here ghoul business.’

The parties got on speaking terms again. Dave was very warm, but Jim’s language was worse. Pinter scratched his chin-feathers reflectively till the other party cooled. There was no appealing to the Commissioner for goldfields; they were outside all law, whether of the goldfields or otherwise—so they did the only thing possible and sensible, they joined forces and became ‘Poynton, Regan, & Party’. They agreed to work the ground from the separate shafts, and decided to go ahead, irrespective of appearances, and get as much dirt out and cradled as possible before the inevitable exposure came along. They found plenty of ‘payable dirt’, and soon the drive ended in a cluster of roomy chambers. They timbered up many coffins of various ages, burnt tarred canvas and brown paper, and kept the fan going. Outside they paid the storekeeper with difficulty and talked of hard times.

But one fine sunny morning, after about a week of partnership, they got a bad scare. Jim and Kullers were below, getting out dirt for all they were worth, and Pinter and Dave at their windlasses, when who should march down from the cemetery gate but Mother Middleton herself. She was a hard woman to look at. She still wore the old-fashioned crinoline and her hair in a greasy net; and on this as on most other sober occasions, she wore the expression of a rough Irish navvy who has just enough drink to make him nasty and is looking out for an excuse for a row. She had a stride like a grenadier. A digger had once measured her step by her footprints in the mud where she had stepped across a gutter: it measured three feet from toe to heel.

She marched to the grave of Jimmy Middleton, laid a dingy bunch of flowers thereon, with the gesture of an angry man banging his fist down on the table, turned on her heel, and marched out. The diggers were dirt beneath her feet. Presently they heard her drive on in her spring-cart on her way into town, and they drew breaths of relief.

It was afternoon. Dave and Pinter were feeling tired, and were just deciding to knock off work for that day when they heard a scuffling in the direction of the different shafts, and both Jim and Kullers dropped down and bundled in in a great hurry. Jim chuckled in a silly way, as if there was something funny, and Kullers guffawed in sympathy.

‘What’s up now?’ demanded Dave apprehensively.

‘Mother Middleton,’ said Jim; ‘she’s blind mad drunk, and she’s got a bottle in one hand and a new pitchfork in the other, that she’s bringing out for some one.’

‘How the hell did she drop to it?’ exclaimed Pinter.

‘Dunno,’ said Jim. ‘Anyway she’s coming for us. Listen to her!’

They didn’t have to listen hard. The language which came down the shaft— they weren’t sure which one—and along the drives was enough to scare up the dead and make them take to the Bush.

‘Why didn’t you fools make off into the Bush and give us a chance, instead of giving her a lead here?’ asked Dave.

Jim and Kullers began to wish they had done so.

Mrs Middleton began to throw stones down the shaft—it was Pinter’s— and they, even the oldest and most anxious, began to grin in spite of themselves, for they knew she couldn’t hurt them from the surface, and that, though she had been a working digger herself, she couldn’t fill both shafts before the fumes of liquor overtook her.

‘I wonder which shaf’ she’ll come down,’ asked Kullers in a tone befitting the place and occasion.

‘You’d better go and watch your shaft, Pinter,’ said Dave, ‘and Jim and I’ll watch mine.’

‘I—I won’t,’ said Pinter hurriedly. ‘I’m—I’m a modest man.’

Then they heard a clang in the direction of Pinter’s shaft.

‘She’s thrown her bottle down,’ said Dave.

Jim crawled along the drive a piece, urged by curiosity, and returned hurriedly.

‘She’s broke the pitchfork off short, to use in the drive, and I believe she’s coming down.’

‘Her crinoline’ll handicap her,’ said Pinter vacantly, ‘that’s a comfort.’

‘She’s took it off!’ said Dave excitedly; and peering along Pinter’s drive, they saw first an elastic-sided boot, then a red-striped stocking, then a section of scarlet petticoat.

‘Lemme out!’ roared Pinter, lurching forward and making a swimming motion with his hands in the direction of Dave’s drive. Kullers was already gone, and Jim well on the way. Dave, lanky and awkward, scrambled up the shaft last. Mrs Middleton made good time, considering she had the darkness to face and didn’t know the workings, and when Dave reached the top he had a tear in the leg of his moleskins, and the blood ran from a nasty scratch. But he didn’t wait to argue over the price of a new pair of trousers. He made off through the Bush in the direction of an encouraging whistle thrown back by Jim.

‘She’s too drunk to get her story listened to to-night,’ said Dave. ‘But to-morrow she’ll bring the neighbourhood down on us.’

‘And she’s enough, without the neighbourhood,’ reflected Pinter.

Some time after dark they returned cautiously, reconnoitred their camp, and after hiding in a hollow log such things as they couldn’t carry, they rolled up their tents like the Arabs, and silently stole away.

 
           

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Last updated:
January 16, 2004
   
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