[Editor: This short story by “Tom Collins” (Joseph Furphy) was published in The Western Mail (Perth, WA), 25 January 1908. The story was printed in three parts; part 1 appeared on 25 January 1908, part 2 on 1 February 1908, and part 3 on 8 February 1908.]
The discovery of Christmas Reef.
By Tom Collins.
At sunrise on December 22, ’66, Sam Boyd started from his hut on the obscure Alum Bagh goldfield. He carried a single-ended pick, a short-handled shovel, a tin dish, a prospecting plant toy-like in size, but potent in practice. A week’s provisions, packed partly in a billy and partly in a canvas satchel, completed his outfit. Sam was on a holiday. Ordinarily, he was a wages man, working a 12 hour shift on the Pactolus crusher, where he attended to the water-power machinery, and bossed the boy who fed the eight-head battery.
As Christmas would fall on a Tuesday, the owner of the Pactolus had declared a fortnight’s holiday, covering Christmas and New Year’s Day. Sam’s mate — a married man — was retained as watchman for the interval; and Sam had seized the opportunity to carry out a pet project.
About a year previously, a red-bearded stranger had come in from where the rugged and riven watershed of Victoria extends westward from Mt. Blackwood. He came in with his life, and little else, having left his prospecting tools and all encumbrances, together with most of his sanity, in the tremendous solitudes of that trackless region. He sold about 3 oz. of gold at the store, and rested a few days; then re-equipped himself, and stealthily returned into the almost impassable gullies from whence he had come. He returned in a fortnight, more haggard and crazy than before, and without any gold to sell. He got a job as substitute for a sick sluicer, and for three weeks he worked like one possessed. This sufficed for another start; and again he betook himself to the tortured geology of the intricate Divide. Nothing more had been heard of him. Saturnine and secretive, he had made no friends on the Bagh; yet it was kindly hoped that he had found his way through to some other settlement.
Of course, the country had already been prospected as thoroughly as could be done by beings destitute of claws or wings, and as fruitlessly as if it had been a coral island; but Sam had read great things into the furtive movements of the red-bearded stranger, and was now putting his roseate forecasts to the proof.
He kept the creek on his right, following its course upward. The channel itself was impracticable; here a barricade of slippery logs; there a growth of scrub; laced with parasites, and almost impervious to daylight; usually scrub and fallen timber in effective blockade, flanked by walls which no human foot might climb without artificial aid. And progress was scarcely less difficult on higher ground, where the alternative was some headlong descent of such giddy depth that the interspace of twenty or thirty yards to the opposing brow seemed irregularly floored by the quivering foliage of the tall white gums rooted in the twilight abyss below.
The country was planless, chaotic, yet consistent in its lack of leading ridges, sloping hill-sides, tablelands, and flats. Nor was there any sky-line, near or distant. From horizon to zenith the view was bounded by masses of foliage, with only irregular and scanty openings revealing the sky. Vegetation rioted on the rich red soil. The surface was hidden by sprawling, interlaced brambles, breast high bracken, and tall, harsh tussock grass, except where these were choked out by dog-wood, mountain ash, musk, fern-tree, or some unnamed scrub; whilst the mighty eucalyptus, colonading the circumscribed survey, towered over all. Though precipitous beyond description, one peculiarity of the region was the comparative rareness of rock, old or recent. Here and there a sharply tilted comb of slate, a rugged outcrop of sandstone, or an intrusion of columnar basalt, showed through the thick mantle of diversified growth; but, apart from the extreme steepness of the country, its leading features were the infrequency of surface rock, and the profusion of vegetation.
The wild, primeval grandeur of the scene touched a sympathetic note in the nature of the young prospector. There was delight in surmounting the checks and hindrances of every step; but underneath the bliss of freedom and the rapture of exploration there still glowed the shapeless prophecy of gold. And whether scaling precipitous fronts or forcing a way through giant bracken, whether climbing over or crawling under prostrate trees denuded of sapwood by half a century of decay, his alert eye noted every geographical feature of exposed ground. And so, with a short interval at mid-day, he pursued his course till evening.
By a glowing camp-fire, down in the bed of the creek, with hunger appeased, knee-boots removed, pipe lit, and feet toward the coals, Sam addressed himself to his evening devotions. He took from the inside pocket of his dungaree jacket a flat package, carefully wrapped in waterproof paper. The removal of this covering, and several others, disclosed his fetish, or teraphim, or eidolon, or whatever name you may apply to the photograph of a woman whose nearest kinship to himself dated probably beyond the Heptarchy. Further, the mysterious affinity of contraries came here into play, inasmuch as their daily occupations, judged from the loftiest standpoint, were as wide asunder as the poles; she, a hospital nurse, soaring toward the heaven of hallowed utility, whilst he, a gold-producer, burrowed Gehenna-ward in search of Mammon’s metal. For truly the digger, though resourceful, brave and debonair to a proverb, is the most bootless workman on earth — always in one sense of the word, often in both.
The pictured face seemed marked with a price beyond rubies (as Solomon puts it); differing from the chiselled classic ideal only in breadth of forehead; showing, indeed, such severe regularity of feature that its sweetness became modified by a note of divine austerity. Nevertheless, the lineaments of the face indexed that type of moral beauty to which all things, except the sordid and impure, are beautiful. And a long, silky braid of amber-tinted hair, accompanying the portrait, indicated that Molly Summers leaned to the blonde rather than the brunette.
After satisfying contemplation of the picture, Sam indulged in a twentieth perusal of Molly’s last letter, written to intimate that she had just obtained leave of absence in order to duplicate her father’s chance in a land lottery. Evening service being thus concluded, the young Sabbath-breaker lapsed into the profound sleep of perfect health and utter weariness.
During the whole of Monday, Sam was confronted by still wilder and more difficult country; a country suffocated by redundancy of growth, and cleft by gorges which, in spite of punctually observed evening orisons, haunted his sleep through the ensuing night. No sign of reef or alluvial gold yet, but many indications of unsuccessful prospecting, old and recent. By this time, he was four or five miles from his starting point.
On the third morning — Christmas Day — he crossed the creek and resumed his way, less interested in the unique features of the scene, and more intent on the primary object of his expedition. Step by step, clinging to the faithfully rooted bracken, and proving every foothold, he had climbed about 150 feet from his camp to find himself on a shapeless and rifted ridge, where the longer vista of tree-columns denoted an area of elevated ground larger than usual. Here the surface, scored in every direction by shallow ravines, was in some places littered with granules of sienna-tinted quartz. The character of the stone betokened gold; and Sam became conscious of a premonition that the limit of his excursion was reached, that his goal was within touch. He sought and scanned exposed surfaces with increased vigilance. He made his way to the butt of every fallen tree; he gave special heed to the channel of every ravine in his way; his eyes never left the ground as he laboriously clove his way through the undergrowth. All the rapture of expectant discovery was on him. Walking where no white man’s foot had ever trodden; taking note of phenomena disclosed by slow-moving periods, to which the history of earth’s most ancient nations is but a story of yesterday — to be first, first; this was kingship. Many would follow; none had preceded.
Then he paused to look down upon a set of tools, leaning against a fractured and half-buried log. The pick and shovel were similar to his own, but with rust-encrusted iron, and with handles blackened by the drip from foliage above. The dish, though unworn, was flaked and spotted with rust. He thought of the red-bearded prospector who had twice left the Bagh in this direction. On his first trip the stranger had furnished himself at the store; on the next he had obtained second-hand tools from the local blacksmith. Now these relics bore no sign of wear; the black paint was yet on the pick-head; the maker’s label still clung to the soddened handle of the shovel. The tools had been lost. But in all probability this range had been the stranger’s objective.
Just visible through an aperture in the scrub, at an uncertain distance of 20 or 40 yards, the butt of an enormous fallen tree thrust its denuded roots above the foliage; and it seemed to Sam that the black earth-embedded log before him was a limb of the same prostrate giant. He placed his own tools, with his satchel and billy, beside the rusting relics, and, thus lightened, stepped on the log and set out along the trunk toward what seemed a favourable look-out position. Scarcely had he started when he thought of kindling a fire beside his deposit; but his ardour grudged the delay, his over-confidence slighted the risk, and he hurried onward.
A hundred feet of arduous progress brought him to a charred butt, buried in dogwood and mountain ash. He was on the wrong log. But in transit he had crossed the shattered head of another gigantic tree, which had seemed to lie in a truer direction. He followed this trunk through its embracing scrub, only to find the roots short and inconspicuous. However, from that point of moderate vantage he saw — or fancied he saw — the vast, weather bleached roots. Diving again into the jungle, he made a bee-line for that point, but failed to find it. Worse still, he had by this time lost the bearings of his starting-place.
(To be Continued.)
The Western Mail (Perth, WA), 25 January 1908, p. 48
Also published in:
Southerly (Sydney, NSW), September 1945, pp. 19-37
J.L. Waten and V.G. O’Connor (editors), Twenty Great Australian Stories, Melbourne: Dolphin Publications, 1946
Joseph Furphy (Tom Collins), The Buln-Buln and the Brolga, and Other Stories, Adelaide (SA): Seal Books, 1971
aperture = an opening, gap, slit, or hole (especially one which is small and narrow)
battery = a machine which uses a heavy metal vertical arm, or multiple arms, to stamp down upon and crush ore, so that minerals could be extracted; the building in which such machines are located (also known as a “stamp battery” or a “stamper battery”)
billy = a metal pot or tin (usually with a wire or steel handle), used for boiling water over a camp fire (also known as a “billy can”)
bootless = pointless, fruitless, unavailing, unprofitable, useless, ineffectual; to not own or not be in possession of boots
bossed = supervised, oversaw, exercise authority over; being a leader of, being in charge of; giving instructions or orders to people (in modern usage, “bossed” commonly refers to people being bossed about, i.e. ordered about by someone in an authoritarian, bossy, condescending, domineering, or stern manner)
butt = the end of a fixture, particularly a larger or thicker end, commonly a blunt end, usually acting as a base, bottom, support, or handle, such as a cigarette butt, fence post butt, or rifle butt
cleft = split, parted, or divided (past tense of “cleave”); a crack, crevice, fissure, or narrow opening (especially in the ground, a rock, or a rock formation)
eidolon = an idealised form or representation of a person or thing; an image or representation of an idea; an idealised person; an apparition, ghost, imaginary entity, phantom, or spectre
Gehenna = a place or state of torment or suffering, hell; a Latin word, from the Greek Geenna, which came from the Hebrew Gē’ Hinnōm, a reference to the valley of Hinnom (a valley south of Jerusalem) which had gained a fearsome and evil reputation among Jews because of barbarous events that took place there (by the time of the New Testament, it had come to mean a reference to Hell, e.g. Matthew 5:22, 5:29; Mark 9:43)
Heptarchy = the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England (East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex) which existed approximately from the 5th century to the early 9th century (can also refer to: a government consisting of seven people, or a state divided into seven autonomous regions)
lineament = a distinctive characteristic, contour, feature, line, outline, or shape, especially regarding someone’s face (normally used in the plural, e.g. the lineaments of the face); a straight feature or line which forms part of the landscape (e.g. a linear fault in the surface of the earth)
Mammon = riches, money; greed for money; money or wealth as a false object of worship (as in the phrase “to worship at the feet of Mammon”, or similar); wealth as an evil influence; Mammon was also personified as a devil, or demon, of wealth and greed
Mammon’s metal = gold
orison = (archaic) a prayer
oz. = an abbreviation of “ounce” and “ounces” (an ounce is a unit of mass that is equal to 480 grains; although there were some variations in historical measurements)
riven = cleaved, split, or torn apart
roseate = pink; rosy; something like or similar to a rose flower
roseate forecast = a rosy forecast; an expectation or a prophesy of good and pleasant times to come; to see the future through rose-coloured glasses
Sabbath-breaker = someone who works on the Sabbath; as the Bible, in Exodus 20:8-11, designated the seventh day as a day for rest and as a holy day (interpreted as a day for the worship of God), working on that day is forbidden by conservative Christian and Jewish belief-systems
Saturnine = gloomy, melancholic, sullen, surly; dark in colour; mysterious; slow, sluggish (a reference to the supposed effects of being under influence the influence of the planet Saturn, which was regarded in earlier times as the planet furthest from the Sun and therefore cold in temperature and slow in its planetary revolutions
sluicer = someone who operates a gold-mining sluice
soddened = the state of being sodden; very wet; saturated, soaked, or soggy from too much liquid, moisture, or water (can also refer to: the state of being dull or stupid, especially when caused by overindulgence in alcoholic drink)
Solomon = King Solomon (ca. 1000-931 BC), King of Israel (ca. 970-931 BC), widely regarded as a wise ruler
teraphim = idols or images, depicting human shape, believed to be depictions of revered ancestors, regarded as household gods
vista = a view from a particular spot, especially a nice view from an elevated location; a distant view (especially as seen through or along an avenue, a row of trees, a row of buildings, or some other opening); a site enabling such a distant view; a vision, such as a mental view of the future or the past
[Editor: Changed “short–handled shovel” to “short-handled shovel”, “westward form” to “westward from”.]