Payable Gold by Henry Lawson
Among the crowds who left the Victorian side for New South Wales
about the time Gulgong broke out was an old Ballarat digger named
Peter McKenzie. He had married and retired from the mining some years
previously and had made a home for himself and family at the village
of St. Kilda, near Melbourne; but, as was often the case with old
diggers, the gold fever never left him, and when the fields of New
South Wales began to blaze he mortgaged his little property in order
to raise funds for another campaign, leaving sufficient behind him to
keep his wife and family in comfort for a year or so.
As he often remarked, his position was now very different from
what it had been in the old days when he first arrived from Scotland,
in the height of the excitement following on the great discovery. He
was a young man then with only himself to look out for, but now that
he was getting old and had a family to provide for he had staked too
much on this venture to lose. His position did certainly look like a
forlorn hope, but he never seemed to think so.
Peter must have been very lonely and low-spirited at times. A
young or unmarried man can form new ties, and even make new sweethearts
if necessary, but Peter's heart was with his wife and little ones at
home, and they were mortgaged, as it were, to Dame Fortune. Peter had
to lift this mortgage off.
Nevertheless he was always cheerful, even at the worst of times,
and his straight grey beard and scrubby brown hair encircled a smile
which appeared to be a fixture. He had to make an effort in order to
look grave, such as some men do when they want to force a smile.
It was rumoured that Peter had made a vow never to return home
until he could take sufficient wealth to make his all-important family
comfortable, or, at least, to raise the mortgage from the property,
for the sacrifice of which to his mad gold fever he never forgave
himself. But this was one of the few things which Peter kept to
The fact that he had a wife and children at St. Kilda was well
known to all the diggers. They had to know it, and if they did not
know the age, complexion, history and peculiarities of every child and
of the "old woman" it was not Peter's fault.
He would cross over to our place and talk to the mother for hours
about his wife and children. And nothing pleased him better than to
discover peculiarities in us children wherein we resembled his own. It
pleased us also for mercenary reasons. "It's just the same with my
old woman," or "It's just the same with my youngsters," Peter would
exclaim boisterously, for he looked upon any little similarity between
the two families as a remarkable coincidence. He liked us all, and
was always very kind to us, often standing between our backs and the
rod that spoils the child — that is, I mean, if it isn't used. I was
very short-tempered, but this failing was more than condoned by the
fact that Peter's "eldest" was given that way also. Mother's second
son was very good-natured; so was Peter's third. Her "third" had a
great aversion for any duty that threatened to increase his muscles;
so had Peter's "second". Our baby was very fat and heavy and was
given to sucking her own thumb vigorously, and, according to the
latest bulletins from home, it was just the same with Peter's "last".
I think we knew more about Peter's family than we did about our
own. Although we had never seen them, we were as familiar with their
features as the photographer's art could make us, and always knew
their domestic history up to the date of the last mail.
We became interested in the McKenzie family. Instead of getting
bored by them as some people were, we were always as much pleased when
Peter got a letter from home as he was himself, and if a mail were
missed, which seldom happened — we almost shared his disappointment
and anxiety. Should one of the youngsters be ill, we would be quite
uneasy, on Peter's account, until the arrival of a later bulletin
removed his anxiety, and ours.
It must have been the glorious power of a big true heart that
gained for Peter the goodwill and sympathy of all who knew him.
Peter's smile had a peculiar fascination for us children. We would
stand by his pointing forge when he'd be sharpening picks in the early
morning, and watch his face for five minutes at a time, wondering
sometimes whether he was always SMILING INSIDE, or whether the smile
went on externally irrespective of any variation in Peter's condition
I think it was the latter case, for often when he had received bad
news from home we have heard his voice quaver with anxiety, while the
old smile played on his round, brown features just the same.
Little Nelse (one of those queer old-man children who seem to come
into the world by mistake, and who seldom stay long) used to say that
Peter "cried inside".
Once, on Gulgong, when he attended the funeral of an old Ballarat
mate, a stranger who had been watching his face curiously remarked
that McKenzie seemed as pleased as though the dead digger had
bequeathed him a fortune. But the stranger had soon reason to alter
his opinion, for when another old mate began in a tremulous voice to
repeat the words "Ashes to ashes, an' dust to dust," two big tears
suddenly burst from Peter's eyes, and hurried down to get entrapped
in his beard.
Peter's goldmining ventures were not successful. He sank three
duffers in succession on Gulgong, and the fourth shaft, after paying
expenses, left a little over a hundred to each party, and Peter had to
send the bulk of his share home. He lived in a tent (or in a hut when
he could get one) after the manner of diggers, and he "did for
himself", even to washing his own clothes. He never drank nor
"played", and he took little enjoyment of any kind, yet there was not
a digger on the field who would dream of calling old Peter McKenzie "a
mean man". He lived, as we know from our own observations, in a most
frugal manner. He always tried to hide this, and took care to have
plenty of good things for us when he invited us to his hut; but
children's eyes are sharp. Some said that Peter half-starved himself,
but I don't think his family ever knew, unless he told them so
Ah, well! the years go over. Peter was now three years from home,
and he and Fortune were enemies still. Letters came by the mail,
full of little home troubles and prayers for Peter's return, and
letters went back by the mail, always hopeful, always cheerful. Peter
never gave up. When everything else failed he would work by the day
(a sad thing for a digger), and he was even known to do a job of
fencing until such time as he could get a few pounds and a small party
together to sink another shaft.
Talk about the heroic struggles of early explorers in a hostile
country; but for dogged determination and courage in the face of
poverty, illness, and distance, commend me to the old-time digger —
the truest soldier Hope ever had!
In the fourth year of his struggle Peter met with a terrible
disappointment. His party put down a shaft called the Forlorn Hope
near Happy Valley, and after a few weeks' fruitless driving his mates
jibbed on it. Peter had his own opinion about the ground — an old
digger's opinion, and he used every argument in his power to induce
his mates to put a few days' more work in the claim. In vain he
pointed out that the quality of the wash and the dip of the bottom
exactly resembled that of the "Brown Snake", a rich Victorian claim.
In vain he argued that in the case of the abovementioned claim, not a
colour could be got until the payable gold was actually reached. Home
Rule and The Canadian and that cluster of fields were going ahead, and
his party were eager to shift. They remained obstinate, and at last,
half-convinced against his opinion, Peter left with them to sink the
"Iawatha", in Log Paddock, which turned out a rank duffer — not even
paying its own expenses.
A party of Italians entered the old claim and, after driving it a
few feet further, made their fortune.
We all noticed the change in Peter McKenzie when he came to "Log
Paddock", whither we had shifted before him. The old smile still
flickered, but he had learned to "look" grave for an hour at a time
without much effort. He was never quite the same after the affair of
Forlorn Hope, and I often think how he must have "cried" sometimes
However, he still read us letters from home, and came and smoked
in the evening by our kitchen-fire. He showed us some new portraits
of his family which he had received by a late mail, but something gave
me the impression that the portraits made him uneasy. He had them in
his possession for nearly a week before showing them to us, and to the
best of our knowledge he never showed them to anybody else. Perhaps
they reminded him of the flight of time — perhaps he would have
preferred his children to remain just as he left them until he
But stay! there was one portrait that seemed to give Peter infinite
pleasure. It was the picture of a chubby infant of about three years
or more. It was a fine-looking child taken in a sitting position on a
cushion, and arrayed in a very short shirt. On its fat, soft, white
face, which was only a few inches above the ten very podgy toes, was a
smile something like Peter's. Peter was never tired of looking at and
showing the picture of his child — the child he had never seen.
Perhaps he cherished a wild dream of making his fortune and returning
home before THAT child grew up.
McKenzie and party were sinking a shaft at the upper end of Log
Paddock, generally called "The other end". We were at the lower end.
One day Peter came down from "the other end" and told us that his
party expected to "bottom" during the following week, and if they got
no encouragement from the wash they intended to go prospecting at the
"Happy Thought", near Specimen Flat.
The shaft in Log Paddock was christened "Nil Desperandum". Towards
the end of the week we heard that the wash in the "Nil" was showing
Later came the news that "McKenzie and party" had bottomed on
payable gold, and the red flag floated over the shaft. Long before
the first load of dirt reached the puddling machine on the creek, the
news was all round the diggings. The "Nil Desperandum" was a "Golden
We will not forget the day when Peter went home. He hurried down
in the morning to have an hour or so with us before Cobb and Co. went
by. He told us all about his little cottage by the bay at St. Kilda.
He had never spoken of it before, probably because of the mortgage.
He told us how it faced the bay — how many rooms it had, how much
flower garden, and how on a clear day he could see from the window all
the ships that came up to the Yarra, and how with a good telescope he
could even distinguish the faces of the passengers on the big ocean
And then, when the mother's back was turned, he hustled us children
round the corner, and surreptitiously slipped a sovereign into each
of our dirty hands, making great pantomimic show for silence, for the
mother was very independent.
And when we saw the last of Peter's face setting like a
good-humoured sun on the top of Cobb and Co.'s, a great feeling of
discontent and loneliness came over all our hearts. Little Nelse, who
had been Peter's favourite, went round behind the pig-stye, where none
might disturb him, and sat down on the projecting end of a trough to
"have a cry", in his usual methodical manner. But old "Alligator
Desolation", the dog, had suspicions of what was up, and, hearing the
sobs, went round to offer whatever consolation appertained to a damp
and dirty nose and a pair of ludicrously doleful yellow eyes.