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- Madame Midas - 10/63 -
where the rivers ye ken were flowin'. And as the ages went on, an' nature, under the guidance o' the Almighty, performed her work, the river bed, wiv a' its gold, would be covered o'er with anither formation, and then the river, or anither yin, would flow on a new bed, and the precious metal would be washed fra the hills in the same way as I tauld ye of, and the second river bed would be also covered o'er, and sae the same game went on and is still progressin'. Sae when the first miners came doon tae this land of Ophir the gold they got by scratchin' the tap of the earth was the latest deposit, and when ye gae doon a few hundred feet ye come on the second river--or rather, I should say, the bed o' the former river-and it is there that the gold is tae be found; and these dried-up rivers we ca' leads. Noo, laddie, ye ma ken that at present we are in the bed o' ain o' these auld streams three hun'red feet frae the tap o' the earth, and it's here we get the gold, and as we gae on we follow the wandrin's o' the river and lose sight o' it.'
'Yes,' said Vandeloup quickly, 'but you lost this river you call the Devil's Lead--how was that?'
'Weel,' said Mr McIntosh, deliberately, 'rivers are varra like human bein's in the queer twists they take, and the Deil's Lead seems to hae been ain like that. At present we are on the banks o' it, where we noo get these nuggets; but 'tis the bed I want, d'ye ken, the centre, for its there the gold is; losh, man,' he went on, excitedly, rising to his feet and rolling up the plan, 'ye dinna ken how rich the Deil's Lead is; there's just a fortune in it."
"I suppose these rivers must stop at a certain depth?"
"Ou, ay," returned the old Scotchman, "we gae doon an' doon till we come on what we ma ca' the primary rock, and under that there is nothin'--except," with a touch of religious enthusiasm, "maybe 'tis the bottomless pit, where auld Hornie dwells, as we are tauld in the Screepture; noo let us gae up again, an' I'll show ye the puddlers at wark."
Vandeloup had not the least idea what the puddlers were, but desirous of learning, he followed his guide, who led him into another gallery, which formed a kind of loop, and joined again with the main drive. As Gaston stumbled along, he felt a touch on his shoulder, and on turning, saw it was Pierre, who had been put to work with the other men, and was acting as one of the runners.
"Ah! you are there, my friend," said Vandeloup, coolly, looking at the uncouth figure before him by the feeble glimmer of his candle; "work away, work away; it's not very pleasant, but at all events," in a rapid whisper, "it's better than New Caledonia."
Pierre nodded in a sullen manner, and went back to his work, while Vandeloup hurried on to catch up to McIntosh, who was now far ahead.
"I wish," said this pleasant young man to himself, as he stumbled along, "I wish that the mine would fall in and crush Pierre; he's such a dead weight to be hanging round my neck; besides, he has such a gaol-bird look about him that it's enough to make the police find out where he came from; if they do, good-bye to wealth and respectability."
He found Archie waiting for him at the entrance to the main drive, and they soon arrived at the bottom of the shaft, got into the cage, and at last reached the top of the earth again. Vandeloup drew a long breath of the fresh pure air, but his eyes felt quite painful in the vivid glare of the sun.
"I don't envy the gnomes," he said gaily to Archie as they went on to the puddlers; "they must have been subject to chronic rheumatism."
Mr McIntosh, not having an acquaintance with fairy lore, said nothing in reply, but took Vandeloup to the puddlers, and showed all the process of getting the gold.
The wash was carried along in the trucks from the top of the shaft to the puddlers, which were large circular vats into which water was constantly gushing. The wash dirt being put into these, there was an iron ring held up by chains, having blunt spikes to it, which was called a harrow. Two of these being attached to beams laid crosswise were dragged round and round among the wash by the constant revolution of the cross-pieces. This soon reduced all the wash dirt to a kind of fine, creamy-looking syrup, with heavy white stones in it, which were removed every now and then by the man in charge of the machine. Descending to the second story of the framework, Vandeloup found himself in a square chamber, the roof of which was the puddler. In this roof was a trap-door, and when the wash dirt had been sufficiently mixed the trap-door was opened, and it was precipitated through on to the floor of the second chamber. A kind of broad trough, running in a slanting direction and called a sluice, was on one side, and into this a quantity of wash was put, and a tap at the top turned on, which caused the water to wash the dirt down the sluice. Another man at the foot, with a pitchfork, kept shifting up the stones which were mixed up with the gravel, and by degrees all the surplus dirt was washed away, leaving only these stones and a kind of fine black sand, in which the gold being heavy, had stayed. This sand was carefully gathered up with a brush and iron trowel into a shallow tin basin, and then an experienced miner carefully manipulated the same with clear water. What with blowing with the breath, and allowing the water to flow gently over it, all the black sand was soon taken away, and the bottom of the tin dish was then covered with dirty yellow grains of gold interspersed with little water-worn nuggets. Archie took the gold and carried it down to the office, where it was first weighed and then put into a little canvas bag, which would be taken to the bank in Ballarat, and there sold at the rate of four pounds an ounce or thereabouts.
'Sae this, ye ken,' said Archie, when he had finished all his explanations, 'is the way ye get gold.'
'My faith,' said Vandeloup, carelessly, with a merry laugh, 'gold is as hard to get in its natural state as in its artificial.'
"An' harder," retorted Archie, "forbye there's nae sic wicked wark aboot it."
"Madame will be rich some day," remarked Vandeloup, as they left the office and walked up towards the house.
"Maybe she will," replied the other, cautiously. "Australia's a gran' place for the siller, ye ken. I'm no verra far wrang but what wi' industry and perseverance ye may mak a wee bit siller yersel', laddie."
"It won't be my fault if I don't," returned M. Vandeloup, gaily; "and Madame Midas," he added, mentally, "will be an excellent person to assist me in doing so."
Gaston Vandeloup having passed all his life in cities found that his existence on the Pactolus claim was likely to be very dreary. Day after day he arose in the morning, did his office work, ate his meals, and after a talk with Madame Midas in the evening went to bed at ten o'clock. Such Arcadian simplicity as this was not likely to suit the highly cultivated tastes he had acquired in his earlier life. As to the episode of New Caledonia M. Vandeloup dismissed it completely from his mind, for this young man never permitted his thoughts to dwell on disagreeable subjects.
His experiences as a convict had been novel but not pleasant, and he looked upon the time which had elapsed since he left France in the convict ship to the day he landed on the coast of Queensland in an open boat as a bad nightmare, and would willingly have tried to treat it as such, only the constant sight of his dumb companion, Pierre Lemaire, reminded him only too vividly of the reality of his trouble. Often and often did he wish that Pierre would break his neck, or that the mine would fall in and crush him to death; but nothing of the sort happened, and Pierre continued to vex his eyes and to follow him about with a dog-like fidelity which arose--not from any love of the young man, but--from the fact that he found himself a stranger in a strange land, and Vandeloup was the only person he knew. With such a millstone round his neck, the young Frenchman often despaired of being able to get on in Australia. Meanwhile he surrendered himself to the situation with a kind of cynical resignation, and looked hopefully forward to the time when a kind Providence would rid him of his unpleasant friend.
The feelings of Madame Midas towards Vandeloup were curious. She had been a very impressionable girl, and her ill-fated union with Villiers had not quite succeeded in deadening all her feelings, though it had doubtless gone a good way towards doing so. Being of an appreciative nature, she liked to hear Vandeloup talk of his brilliant life in Paris, Vienna, London, and other famous cities, which to her were merely names. For such a young man he had certainly seen a great deal of life, and, added to this, his skill as a talker was considerable, so that he frequently held Madame, Selina, and McIntosh spell-bound by his fairy-like descriptions and eloquent conversation. Of course, he only talked of the most general subjects to Mrs Villiers, and never by any chance let slip that he knew the seamy side of life--a side with which this versatile young gentleman was pretty well acquainted. As a worker, Gaston was decidedly a success. Being quick at figures and easily taught anything, he soon mastered all the details of the business connected with the Pactolus claim, and Madame found that she could leave everything to him with perfect safety, and could rely on all matters of business being well and promptly attended to. But she was too clever a woman to let him manage things himself, or even know how much she trusted him; and Vandeloup knew that whatever he did those calm dark eyes were on him, and that the least slip or neglect on his part would bring Madame Midas to his side with her quiet voice and inflexible will to put him right again.
Consequently the Frenchman was careful not to digress or to take too much upon himself, but did his work promptly and carefully, and soon became quite indispensable to the work of the mine. In addition to this he had made himself very popular with the men, and as the months rolled on was looked upon quite as a fixture in the Pactolus claim.
As for Pierre Lemaire, he did his work well, ate and slept, and kept his eye on his companion in case he should leave him in the lurch; but no one would have guessed that the two men, so different in appearance, were bound together by a guilty secret, or were, morally speaking, both on the same level as convicts from a French prison.
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