Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Recollections of an English gold mine
RECOLLECTIONS OF AN ENGLISH GOLD MINE.
ix years ago the gold fever was imported from Australia, and for a short space of time raged in England with unmitigated violence; a greater yellowness than usual tinged the City mind, and the conversation of City men; little else was talked about, but the discovery which had just been made—that if there was one mineral with which English soil was abundantly furnished, it was the precious metal in question. With that energy of enterprise which distinguishes our great nation, companies were immediately formed for extracting the gold from the ore, and our still more enterprising neighbours across the Atlantic found a splendid field for their peculiarly inventive genius, and sent us over machines to facilitate our endeavours by amalgamating the auriferous soil with quicksilver, after pulverising it first by the aid of steam-power.
At that particular period, I had just reached my twentieth year; but sitting in judgment over myself at this distance, I have come to the conclusion that, owing to my singular greenness and incapacity for business at the time, I was in reality much younger than my age. In spite of these unlucky characteristics, somebody who took a great interest in me (my father), had just established me in the city as an analytical chemist and mining engineer. Now if there was one thing in the world for which I was peculiarly, and I may even say, extraordinarily unfit, it was that very useful profession; but it is a well-known fact that the fondest parents are not always the most discriminating in the choice of professions for their sons.
So I had spent two years in a school of chemistry, attending lectures, and performing analyses, qualitative and quantitative, and various other chemical experiments, which I used to think very droll and amusing, in order to fit myself for my future career—and at length, thanks to my father’s kindness, I found myself master of a laboratory which had been arranged in a manner regardless of expense, with water and gas laid on in every possible corner, and bottles, chemical stoves, and scales, &c., of a most ornamental brightness and perfection.
Here I waited for employment daily, and entertained my friends with sumptuous hospitality at lunch and supper; here also I occasionally astonished my mother and sister, by dexterously turning yellow liquids into blue ones, and performing other marvels of science,—accomplishments which I have almost entirely forgotten (in my prospectus it was stated that assays of ore and analyses of minerals, &c., would be most carefully conducted, and all business of the kind attended to, with great steadiness and despatch); and pending the advent of work, the scene of my future operations was enlivened by athletic sports and every kind of jollification, which helped me to endure the anxiety of my parents, at seeing me start on the serious business of life, so young.
I must say, that thanks to the kindness of several friends of my family, employment came pretty rapidly: one in particular gave me a large order for analysing various specimens of soil from his estate. I conducted these experiments with proper earnestness, and he paid me for them with becoming gravity. I now thank him kindly for the same (it would have been undignified to do so then), and sincerely hope that he has found my scientific research beneficial to his land.
These timely helps kept the wolf from my laboratory-door for a while, and I began to think making money was easy work, and that the man who cannot earn his bread by the sweat of his brow does not deserve to eat it; when the gold contagion suddenly broke out, and committed great ravages. I caught it one rainy afternoon near the Exchange, and by the time I reached home, my brain and pulses were in a morbid state of excitement about the new discovery. My mother and sister instantly became affected; but my father, who was of a stout habit and robust temperament, and gifted with a very practical turn of mind, fortunately escaped, and devoted himself to our cure. Thanks to his very judicious nursing, I was the first to recover; indeed, next day I was punctual at my place of business, where I fenced and boxed with comparatively unimpaired vigour all the morning.
Time wore on, the gold fever raged worse and worse, and I waited impatiently for it to give me employment; at length it did so, in a few months from the period of its birth: somebody introduced me to somebody else, who introduced me to the chairman of the Victoria Gold and Copper Mine, situated near Moleville, in Blankshire, and which was apparently in a very bad way. Upwards of 6000l. had been spent in working for gold in the course of half a year (they had left off working it for copper, of course, ever since the existence of the more precious metal had been suspected); but although gold had been abundantly found in all the small experiments which two celebrated chemists had performed on samples collected from the mine, as soon as these same operations had been carried on on a large scale down at the spot, nothing beyond the merest traces of gold had been realised.
There was a mystery about this which was solved by the matter-of~fact instinct of my dear papa, in a way so very uncomplimentary to some person or persons unknown, that I really think it better not to say anything further on the subject.
The chairman of the Victoria Gold and Copper Mine was favourably impressed with me. A meeting of the Board of Directors was held forthwith, and it was solemnly and unanimously decided, that I should analyse a sample of the ore which had been just lately forwarded.
Here was a moment of delicious excitement! Perfect strangers, men of sense and experience, utterly unbiassed by any friendly motives towards my family, trusting me with an important trial, the result of which might affect the welfare of lots of people besides their own! Cheapside itself looked narrow when I walked out of that boardroom.
The sample was most conscientiously analysed: crushed into fine powder, I recollect, trituratcd with quicksilver, in a small machine invented on purpose by Mr. Perkes, an American, (a gigantic specimen of which was rolling itself round and round in Blankshire at no little cost). The quicksilver was carefully and decorously distilled, and left a small residuum which was fused with litharge, and afterwards melted again in a beautiful little white thing called a cupel; and the result was a most surprising button of pure gold, sufficiently large in proportion to the matrix to justify the formation of the Victoria Gold and Copper Mine, and even to encourage the most sanguine hopes.
When I took the report of my analysis and the button, and exultingly laid them before the chairman, he was considerably less astonished than I expected him to be. This latter experiment had merely turned out as the others had done, and was therefore no novelty to him; and he could not conceive by what hitch in the machinery, by what imperfection of manipulation, everything had hitherto failed down at the mine. No more could I; but my good angel prompted me to hold my tongue, and look præternaturally wise; so much so that Mr. Chairman, who was fond of quotation, said:
Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,
which was very much to the point.
“Ahem! Felix, indeed,” said I, trying to look very happy.
At length Mr. Chairman asked me whether it would suit my convenience to go down to the mine, in the event of the Board requiring me to do so?
Now my good father had instructed me to repress all boyish enthusiasm at any proposition of this kind, and without implying the slightest falsehood, to give a strong impression that such a journey, just at that particular moment, would involve the most serious risk to my interests in the city; and, I believe, I acted this to perfection.
Two days after, I received a polite note, requesting my attendance at the Board of Committee on the following afternoon, if convenient. I wrote a hurried reply to say that I would manage to find time at twenty-three minutes past four, and immediately went home to prepare myself for the great event by a serious consultation with my family.
My mother was of opinion that my manners and appearance were such as to conciliate any board. My sister was of the same opinion as my mother.
My father moved that, with all due deference to maternal and fraternal pride, these characteristics were not of sufficient weight to make sober city men entrust me with a mission of such great responsibility.
It was necessary, he said, that in my interview with the directors next day, I should cram them with every possible technical term that had ever been invented for the purpose, and he advised me to read them up forthwith in a manual for mining engineers, as the facts of the case were so simple that they would fail to impress the gentlemen of the managing committee, unless properly dished up and garnished, and served with suitable pomp and solemnity.
Here were the facts of the case in their rude simplicity.
Firstly. If, after carefully selecting samples from the mine, and crushing some twenty tons of the same in the machine with quicksilver, and, in short, going through all the necessary operations (a thing I should feel very much embarrassed to do now), if, he said, I did find gold, such a result would be encouraging, but not at all conclusive. Who knows? One of the people employed might, by accident, drop his purse containing gold into the machinery, and fail to remember the circumstance after. Therefore, if I did find gold, my duty was to repeat the experiment over again till I didn’t.
Secondly. If, on the other hand, I did not find gold, either in the quicksilver or the residue, the experiment would be quite conclusive, and my duty was to come back immediately and advise the board of direction to wind up the affairs of the company, and not waste any more money on such a fool’s errand—and, as he was perfectly sure I should not find gold, why, I need not trouble myself any further about the matter.
I could not but see the force of these arguments, and acted accordingly. I presented myself at the board next day a perfect dictionary of scientific mining expletives, and spoke in a most encouraging way of the prospects of the mine; stating that, if it contained gold enough to pay, the Victoria Gold-mining Company would, if well managed, probably be a very successful venture;—that if it did not, my business would be to find it out, and break the truth to them in a straightforward and business-like manner; adding that, possibly, the gentlemen, my predecessors, had not found gold, but, by excess of delicacy, had lacked the moral courage to tell them the real reason of their! failure—namely, that perhaps there was no gold to find—and had thus allowed them to incur expense after expense. I hoped, however, that such was not really the case, and that a very few days would decide the matter, should we agree as to terms, &c.
This was merely the substance of my discourse, for, by a lucky inspiration, I managed to make it last a long time, and to squeeze “lodes,” “gossans,” “costeanings,” and other impressive words into almost every sentence. It produced a very great effect on the dircctors and even on myself; and after a few questions on their part, which I answered with great discretion (my father had foreseen everything), they retired to the adjoining room, where they laid their heads together for at least twenty minutes.
My excitement during this consultation was such as I had never felt before, and my efforts to appear unconcerned before the office-clerk were alone worth the remuneration I was to receive for my invaluable assistance.
At length the chairman came out to speak to me privately, and, after humming and hawing me into a state of distraction, he told me that they had severally come to the conclusion—first, that I was very young; secondly, that they had spent a great deal of money on the mine without having as yet attained any positive result.
These were facts I did not venture to contradict. He then said that if a guinea a-day for my salary, and half-a-guinea a-day for my expenses, would be sufficient to compensate for my time and trouble, the board would decide upon sending me down.
If a guinea a-day, indeed! I felt a wild impulse to embrace the whole board in the person of that venerable fat old fellow, but fort1mately succeeded in restraining myself. I told him I would think of the matter, and return him an answer the following day; and, after bowing myself first into the office-clerk and then into the fire-place, I eventually succeeded in making an unconcerned exit.
I pass over my triumphant sensations and the family bliss, only chequered by anxiety lest the Victoria Gold and Copper Mine should come to grief before I got there. My answer to the board was, of course, favourable. I had soon completed all my little preparations, and on a splendid afternoon in August I found myself in the express train on the Great Western line, with the engineer of the mine, with whom I soon got on the very best of terms; a most sensible, lively, and gentlemanlike man, whose opinions on the gold question coincided so singularly with my father’s, that I was naturally led to confide in him to a great extent, and found his advice as to my future conduct invaluable.
I will not attempt to describe the details of my journey, which were all de1ightful—the ride at early dawn through the most enchanting lanes to Moleville; the delightful acquaintance I made on the top of the stagecoach, which completely drove mining and gold out of my head, &c.—but come at once to my business.
We walked from Moleville to the mine through a series of beautiful miniature woods and valleys—a short cut which the engineer, who had a fine eye for the picturesque, particularly recommended—and suddenly the first mine which I, a mining engineer of some standing, had ever beheld, burst upon my view. A few outhouses and buildings, two gigantic water-wheels,—erected at immense expense by my friend the engineer, whose fine eye for the picturesque made him do things grandly,—a lot of red soil and broken granite lying about, and many skeletons of former crushing-machines which had reigned in turn till Mr. Perkes’s victorious crusher had crushed them all into oblivion—such was the aspect that unrolled itself to my astonished eye. We made our way to a small outhouse of greater pretension than the rest, and I was there introduced to the captain of the mine—in other words, the head-miner—who was to be under my orders. After a few minutes’ conversation, during which he treated me with a respectful deference I was not accustomed to meet with in grey-haired men, I was conducted to a brick building surmounted by a tall chimney, from which issued a rolling and thundering noise—the voice of Mr. Perkes’s machine. Some five-and-twenty or thirty shaggy rough-looking men were about. These were the miners. Their appearance was not reassuring, and when the engineer left me alone with them, with a parting injunction that I was to make them feel I had an iron-will at once, I confess I felt myself uncomfortably young, and a little bit at a loss.
We proceeded to business at once, however; and as I met their first little symptoms of insubordination with one or two acts of summary justice (which I will spare the reader, but which, emanating from me, caused me unlimited astonishment), I soon established a proper authority over them, and we thenceforward got on together capitally.
I must now explain, in as brief and clear a manner as I can, the nature of the work I had to do, and the way I did it. I am afraid these scientific details will bore my reader to read, as they bore me to write them—and think that the best and shortest way is by transcribing a few extracts from my diary at the time.
But first it is necessary to state that, for three weeks previous to my arrival, Perkes’s machine had been working indefatigably night and day; and on the very morning I got there, the last ton was going through the ordeal, and after disporting itself in the machine, impalpably pulverised with the mercury, was running off with the water in a kind of clear red mud, having of course left all its gold behind it. Now, three weeks of miners’ wages, wear and tear of machinery, and unavoidable loss of mercury, must have cost a pretty considerable sum of money; I will not venture to say how much, as my information on such subjects is generally not to be relied upon; but if the reader possesses any of the practical turn which I lack, he will be able to form a tolerably correct estimate of the amount of gold necessary to cover these expenses, compensate for the original outlay, and pay a dividend.
“August—th.—Arrived at mine; rusticated W——, for shying his hat at me, and fined O—— and H—— half-a-crown a piece for grinning when I took a razor-strop out of my carpet-bag. When all the gossan was crushed, had machine stopped, and mercury drawn off and put into the still; luted cover of still on, and stamped luting secretly in two places with a crooked sixpence, to prevent mischief. Had the still put on the fire; left it under the charge of Hodge, who seems very much afraid of me, with particular directions not to inhale the fumes.
Bright idea—tested the red mud from the machine for gold—not a trace of it—all in the mercury. Went home to dinner. Ten o’clock; uneasy about Hodge; walked to the mine; beautiful night; Hodge nearly suffocated; stupid fool had shut the ventilator; blew him up; put Westmacott in his place; distillery going on well. Owen nearly pushed me into a mud-vat—perhaps accident. Home to bed.
“August—th (next day).—Hodge all right again; gave him some cavendish and half-a-crown. All the mercury distilled; took the cover off; scraped residuum carefully out; fused it—cupelled it. All the fellows in great excitement. Hodge dreadfully sick—cavendish and heat of the stove, I suppose; gave him some peppermint drops. Took the cupel out; cleared the smithy. General excitement interferes with regularity of business. Deuced excited myself. Cupel cooled; little button of gold; weighed it—value one shilling and seven pence halfpenny; regular shut-up for the Victoria.”
It is unnecessary to quote any further from my diary; indeed I find, after a careful perusal, that I left it off just at this particular stage of the proceedings, and used it as a sketch-book. Such a result was unmistakably conclusive, and gave rise to no little commotion among the miners, some of whom thought proper to be very witty about the whole business. I immediately wrote to the board:
“It’s all up with the Victoria, and the works had better be stopped at once, as far as gold is concerned. I enclose you my report, and await your orders to return to town, as my remaining here any longer is of course an useless expense.
“I remain, &c.”
The enclosed report stated that thirty tons of gossan had yielded so much gold (I forget the weight of the minute button), value 1s. 7½d., and that the perfect efficiency of Perkes’s machine had been proved by the complete absence of gold in the residue after it had passed through said machine: the inevitable conclusion from which was, that the mine contained no more than the infinitesimal quantity of gold which had been found to exist nearly everywhere.
My friend the engineer, who was returning to London that night, volunteered to be the bearer of this sad communication.
Two days after I received the answer, in which I expected to find unequivocal commendation of the rapid manner in which I had hit upon the truth, and the disinterested advice I had given them. To my great surprise, however, it was a very angry letter, complaining of the unbusiness-like way in which I had stated the bitter truth. A thing of such moment was not to be decided in that flippant manner, after so much money had been spent, and trouble incurred, for the last six months. They stated, moreover, that my duty was to remain as long as-they pleased, and begged that I would henceforward be kind enough (!) to carry out several experiments which they would in course of due time suggest. Such was the subject of this peculiar epistle, on the back of which the chairman—no doubt with the kind intention of softening, in a measure, its asperity—had written a Greek quotation, which I have not yet been able to make out.
Well, of course I was content enough to remain in the land of clover, and so I made up my mind to stay. The “experiments” were suggested; I performed them, and very great recreation they afforded me: they consisted principally in superintending the manufacture of mud-pies on a very large scale, the manipulation of which was entrusted to the miners. Mud-pies had been a favourite accomplishment of my own, not very many years ago, and occasionally I could not resist the temptation of lending a hand to my shaggy friends, and messing myself from head to foot. The mercury which entered into their composition rendered them a great improvement on the unsophisticated mud-pies of infancy, and the subsequent little chemical tests instituted by the board lent additional interest; besides which, they cost a great deal of money.
My letters to the board contained very scientific reports of our proceedings, and were met by grave answers, accompanied by new suggestions.
Amongst other wonders, a large case was sent down from London, in which was the model of a machine, which, if successful, was to supersede Mr. Perkes’s, as if Mr. Perkes’s were to blame! One of the directors had invented it (he was a retired officer); I will not attempt to describe the marvellous piece of mechanism which had emanated from the depths of that military gentleman’s consciousness; but merely state that it turned out to be a perfect Irish bull of a machine, and that to use it for its intended purpose was about as wise as attempting to go round the world in twenty-four hours, by ascending in a balloon and waiting till the earth had turned itself round, as I believe it usually does in that time. Nevertheless we set it to work, and it behaved splendidly; the nature of its fun was so broad as to tickle even the most uneducated intellects, as my men soon found out to their inexhaustible delight: in fact, it had some of the powerfully comic qualities which distinguish Mr. Robson.
The miners did not believe in the mine, and as they perceived that I did not either, they believed in me to a most flattering extent. Indeed, I soon got very much attached to the fellows, and used to tell them long stories about foreign lands, while they were distilling the pure mercury, or performing other innocent operations suggested by the board, and enlighten them on various subjects on which I felt their ignorance to be equal to, or greater, than my own. They reciprocated my anecdotes with long yarns which were full of interest. My letters home contained descriptions and sketches of them, and my mamma became interested in their spiritual welfare. Even now I entertain feelings of friendship towards two or three of them, who, surrounded by the halo of memory, seem primitive gentlemen worthy of King Arthur’s Round Table; and should they have acquired the accomplishment of reading since we parted, and this happen to meet their eye, I hope they will remember that very jolly month of September and me.
Besides all this excitement, existence was full of charm for me between the hour of my leaving the mine and that of my returning to it next day. I was soon on terms of the most intimate friendship with many of the surrounding farmers and small gentry of the neighbourhood. It was a constant round of festivities either at their houses or my hotel, where I occasionally entertained them with an elegant hospitality which exalted our jovial good fellowship into the most sentimental affection towards the small hours of the night. How I rode, and wrestled, and boxed with them! and fell in love with their sisters, and sketched them, and sang Tyrolese melodies to them, an accomplishment imitated from Herr von Joël, and in which I had completely surpassed my model (if the opinion of these young ladies, who had never heard him, is to be accounted of any value). It was most uproarious fun, and morning, noon, and night I blessed the lucky stroke of Fortune which had made me mining engineer to a gold mine, without any gold, managed by gentlemen who obstinately persisted in ignoring the latter important fact, in spite of my honest endeavours to persuade them of it. I have only to hum a certain “jodel” chorus, and the whole scene returns to me, surrounded by that peculiar fascination which belongs to past pleasures—a phenomenon far more interesting to me than the most marvellous phenomena of science.
Thus the days wore on in golden peace and plenty: when towards the end of September I received a letter from London, announcing that the directors intended to come down to the mine in person, in the course of a few days, to satisfy themselves that I had carefully and conscientiously fulfilled the mission they had entrusted to me, and witness the absence of the gold with their own eyes.
Everything was prepared to receive them, and when the day arrived, there was a certain appearance of festivity about the mine which could not fail to produce a pleasing effect upon the expected visitors. The captain was got up in a surprising suit of clothes, which consisted principally in a yellow waistcoat, and some of the miners had washed their faces!
At about mid-day three open carriages made their appearance, and five gentlemen, whom I had already met in London (two of whom had brought wives, and daughters, and hampers, with them), got out of the vehicles with the air of men who had an important duty to perform.
I received them, I trust, in a manner becoming to the occasion, and we immediately proceeded to business. They inspected everything with the eye of a hawk. They too, since I had left them, had made themselves thoroughly proficient in those technical terms without which no science can ever rest on a solid basis; but occasionally applied them in rather a reckless manner, I must say. They took especial interest in the experiments their combined wisdom had dictated, and criticised them with a gravity which I am sorry to say some of my men thought fit to see from a humorous point of view. The military gentleman insisted upon seeing his machine at work, and asked me if I did not think it “rather a neat thing?” I gave him great satisfaction by telling him that it was very pretty, must have cost a great deal of money, and revolved on itself in a charmingly symmetrical manner.
The ladies of the party asked many questions, and interested themselves in everything with a prettiness, an inconsistency, a sudden running away from one thing to another which is peculiar to the sex, I suppose, on such occasions, and which was perfectly bewildering to my shaggy friends.
About an hour was spent in this lively manner, and at last the directors came to conclusions that were favourable to Mr. Perkes’s gold-crushing machine and to me, completely exonerating us both from any charge of inefficiency as far as our part of the work was concerned; the captain and the miners also came in for their share of approbation, and the latter were generously tipped.
The serious part of the day’s business being now over, they invited me to partake of lunch with them. The hampers were unpacked, and delicious cold things were laid out on the grass, beneath the combined shadows of a wide-spreading chesnut tree and one of the huge water-wheels; everybody was in the best of tempers, and we soon got very happy indeed. There was a pastoral freshness about this way of settling gold mines which had an inexpressible charm. The total ruin of the Victoria, which had just been de facto decided, did not in the slightest degree cloud the merriment of our little pic-nic; it had been tacitly brought about (the ruin, not the pic-nic), and was tacitly ignored.
As soon as the meal was over, the young ladies of the party took out their albums, and jotted down parts of the surrounding landscape with a rapidity at which Turner would have stood aghast. How they chatted and laughed, and how happy they were! The element of the gushing nature was in them, and a thimblefull of champagne had brought it out. I also had drunk champagne, a little too much perhaps, and gushed in unison. I complimented them on their performance with the brush in several languages, two of which I really knew, as my education had been continental; and praised the tender chocolate hue of their trees, and the deep ultramarine of their backgrounds, and even went so far as to suggest that a delicate check-pattern for their cows would be very appropriate. Papas and mammas looked on delighted. I also enlivened the foregathering with the loudest Tyrolese ditties those hills had ever echoed, and two sisters sang “Excelsior” to the accompaniment of a guitar, which a mamma produced out of one of the carriages. Meanwhile, alas! my Knights of the Round Table were getting most desperately drunk in the smithy.
The shades of eve were falling fast by the time we left the mine; my new friends kindly offered me a lift to Moleville, and packed me up comfortably in an empty hamper at the back of one of the vehicles. As we drove off, the miners all came out of the smithy, hurraing with great uncertainty of voice, and waving their hats enthusiastically; in fact they waved everything about them. We made rather a pretty procession through the lovely Blankshire lanes, as the sun was setting and the trees were swerving overhead with a beautiful rushing noise; the ladies leaned back with their arms round each others‘ waists, and the gentlemen smiled and nodded majestically, like powerful gods in dalliance. As we lost sight of the mine I heard the men cheering me vociferously; and I swayed to and fro in my food-basket with a delightful reckless feeling that everything in life was jolly, especially business. The chairman informed me that “It was the hour when lovers’ vows seem sweet in ev’ry whispered word,” and another director told me that I was to return to London next day, and hold myself in readiness for something, which I did not catch on account of the chairman’s quotation. I answered, “As in præsenti perfectum format in avi,” and that I would hold myself in readiness for any mortal thing they could suggest.
When we arrived at Moleville, the ladies left us, and we men finished the evening together, I believe, at the hotel; indeed, the effect of the day’s excitement and beautiful ride home on my peculiarly impressive temperament, made the rest of that evening a mystery to me, and I have no doubt to one or two gentlemen of the managing committee besides.
Next morning we all breakfasted together in the large room of the hotel. Some of the directors made their meal entirely off soda-water—half-a-dozen bottles at least. I think they had two or three headaches, for they complained of the relaxing nature of the climate. The ladies, however, were charmingly brisk and amiable, and I was getting wonderfully fond of the whole lot. But alas! the time for parting was at hand, and by the time I had finished my bottle of soda-water, I perceived that the carriages were at the door, which were to convey them all to a neighbouring watering-place. The parting was very affectionate on both sides; they all expressed themselves much delighted with me, and were profuse in their invitations and offers of hospitality, especially the military gentleman, who had invented that funny machine. The chairman told me to prepare a clever matter-of-fact report, in such away that the shareholders should perceive that everything had been done that could have been done—no stone left unturned—no useless expense incurred, adding that he really took a paternal interest in me, and that possibly my prospects in life might in a measure depend on the way in which I should manage this important, and he might say, delicate business.
Everybody else said things to the same purpose, and as they drove away, after many shakings of hands and mutual good wishes, the chairman turned round on his box, and said: “Verbum sap.—my dear boy—Fare thee well!”
I felt very sad at their departure; we had all seemed to get on together so well, and understand each other so capitally; the only slight thing I couldn’t quite understand was “verbum sap.” and who “sap.” was.
So I turned with a sigh towards the mine, where I had another parting scene to go through with my merrie men. When I got there, I found they all knew that I was leaving them, and had even scented out that their services would not be available much longer on that particular mine. All this made them very gloomy indeed, and I did my best to cheer them up by a little farewell speech, which made me feel very much inclined to shed tears. They had packed up my few chemicals in the trap which was to convey me to the stage-coach, and among them many little presents and tokens of remembrance. One gave me a tobacco pouch, another a short black pipe, which I determined not to use till age had made my constitution stronger. The captain presented me with a small Testament, and the smith with two little jars of cream for my mother; even Hodge, who was the poorest of the poor, pressed upon my acceptance a beautiful dead snake, which emitted a very powerful odour.
Several of them walked by the side of my trap for a little way, and when I finally shook hands with them, after a little go of whiskey all round, I thought what a jolly thing it would be to go off mining to Australia together, and meet with a lot of adventures—I to be the desperado captain of the gang.
At the hotel where the stage-coach stopped, I found several of my country friends, who had come to wish me good bye. I recollect inviting them all to my father’s house in London, and shaking hands over and over again, and having several parting cups with them;—after which the stage-coach started, and I don’t recollect whether I rode inside or out.
Next morning I was in London, under the paternal roof and amidst the maternal caresses. After I had given a minute account of my proceedings over the family breakfast table, during which his majesty my dear papa was often graciously moved to laughter, he expressed great satisfaction at my conduct (I omitted a few unimportant details, of course, such as our bacchic performances at the hotel, which I reserved for the entertainment of my own particular pals); my mother listened with affectionate gravity, and sometimes shook her head—but in the eyes of my sister, who had just recently attained the dignity of long petticoats and womanhood (after an attack of the measles, which had taken place during my absence) I was evidently a sort of hero, to be treated henceforward with a certain deference.
About a week was to elapse before the much-dreaded meeting of the shareholders; and my father and I set to work together on my report, which was to be a marvel of scientific clearness and precision. My sister was amanuensis, and my mother sat by to soften the little crudities; and soon a very neat and concise little affair was arranged, and when I read it out loud in several tones of voice for the sake of practice, it met each time with the universal approbation of the family.
I sent it in next day, addressed to the chairman, feeling sure that it would increase the really paternal favour with which he regarded me; and this little responsibility being off my hands, and my family leaving London for the sea-side, I gave myself up entirely to my friends for the rest of the week.
At length, on the evening of the day which preceded the general meeting of the shareholders, I received a note from Mr. Chairman (who, it appeared, had just returned to town from a Somersetshire watering-place), saying that my report was too short and matter-of-fact, too drily scientific, and that another should be immediately written, which, besides the invaluable quality of truth, should possess a little of the elegance of fiction; that it was all very well to confine myself to mere technicalities in my private correspondence with him and his brother directors, to whom the arcana of science were no mystery, but that many of the gentlemen who would hear this report on the following day were not fitted by education to understand it; that, in short, I must know very well the sort of thing he meant, and he relied entirely upon my intelligence and goodwill.
Now that very evening I was going to a musical party, which I would not have missed on any consideration, and should have thought it very hard to give up such a classical treat, merely because nature had endowed Mr. Chairman with a poetical constitution; so I quietly popped the report into another envelope, and sent it back, with a polite message to the effect that I would be most happy to develope my theories by vivâ voce explanation the following day.
The musical party lasted all night, and I confess that the exciting effect of “Down among the Dead Men,” and the “Holy Friar,” and other compositions, had scarcely subsided by the time fixed for the meeting of the shareholders on the morrow. I was very punctual, however, and walked calmly into the board-room, where I indicated myself in a series of bows. Many were assembled there, and their faces were “ashen and sober as the leaves that are crispèd and sere,” as I observed to the chairman. He was not at all in a mood, however, for that sort of thing, and seemed exceedingly stiff and formal; the muse had evidently quite forsaken him. I soon felt that the business of the day was no longer to be characterised by that idyllic tenderness I had found so pleasant down in Blankshire; the other directors looked very grave; the mild eyes of the military gentleman were filled with dismay. There were several gentlemen present whom I had never seen, but whom I recognised as shareholders by the length of their faces. The only face in which I saw anything like cordiality or facetiousness was that of my friend the engineer, whom I immediately greeted in the most impulsive manner.
Sheets of foolscap and blotting paper were ominously laid out on the table before each place.
Presently one of my predecessors in the chemical business of the mine, the eminent analytical chemist Mr. Ex, made his appearance, and to him I was introduced, but he chose to acknowledge my very respectful salutation with contemptuous indifference. I immediately made a mental estimate of his weight. Shortly after, Mr. Zed, my other eminent rival, walked in, and he did not acknowledge my respectful salutation at all. The caricatures I made of them both on my sheet of blotting-paper were afterwards pronounced first-rate by my friend the engineer.
We sat down in stormy silence; I was at the right hand of the chairman, and supported the military gentleman on my other side. The other directors filled their respective places at the board, and the shareholders stood or sat all about the room.
The chairman opened the proceedings by a sort of general statement of things, which appeared to me rather confused. It comprised, however, a very plausible account of all that had been done before I was employed, and of all the money that had been spent, and how; and it took a very long time to deliver.
It enlarged on the zeal, cleverness, and inestimable services of my friend the engineer, who rose and acknowledged the compliment with a few smiling, gentlemanlike, and appropriate words; after which he made a kind of comprehensive bow all round, the elegance of which I have never seen surpassed, and then he left the room.
Mr. Chairman then expatiated on the admirable and necessarily expensive manner in which Messrs. Zed & Ex had fulfilled their parts; how, owing to circumstances which he thought it unnecessary to enter into then, their efforts had not met with the success they deserved; how, at length, they had decided upon availing themselves of my assistance in spite of my extreme youth; how he and the other directors, waiving all considerations of personal convenience, had gone down to the mine themselves, and at their own expense, to see that I had managed everything properly; how, in short, I had done everything they had suggested in the most careful and conscientious manner, and how they had been led thereby to the conclusions which would be found, not so much in my report, which I had thought fit to make exceedingly short and technical, as in the explanations which I had kindly volunteered to give vivâ voce.
He then read my report, which stated the nature of the experiments performed by me from first to last, and their complete failure, and ascribed the cause thereof to the fact that gold did not exist in the Victoria Gold and Copper. Mines. I thought it sounded very nice, and that the chairman had a very impressive voice, and read it beautifully. I was especially struck with the dignity with which l had invested the mud-pie experiments by describing them scientifically.
When he had finished, nobody asked for a vivâ voce explanation of my eloquent little composition, which everybody appeared to understand perfectly well; but the chairman said that I was desirous of adding a few remarks, and squeezed my hand under the table in a very friendly manner.
Now I must say that the latter part of Mr. Chairman’s extempore oration, in which he had alluded to my services, did not exactly thrill me with feelings of unmixed delight; for he had allotted to me a very secondary part in the important discovery which had been made—namely, the absence of gold in the Victoria Gold Mine; and as I had piqued myself on being the originator of the said important discovery, I thought it very unpaternal in him not to give me credit for the same; added to which, the very unfraternal behaviour of my confrères Messrs. Zed & Ex towards me had excited legitimate feelings of resentment in my bosom.
So I reciprocated the pressure of the chairman’s fingers, cleared my throat, and delivered the following memorable address:
Gentlemen,—Accustomed as I am to public speaking—(which was perfectly true, for to public speaking I owe some of the sweetest naps I ever enjoyed)—I find it a matter of great difficulty to account for the unfortunate delusion under which all assembled here have been labouring for the last six months. I went down to the Victoria mine in August, and proved it, as per report, to contain no more gold than is to be found in traces everywhere, even in sea water. It took me two days to make this discovery, and I immediately begged the directors to allow me to return to London. They were anxious, however, that everything should be done which could be done, no stone left unturned, no useless expense spared which—(kicks under the table)—I mean no useless expense incurred, and insisted on my remaining at the mine: so I obeyed their orders, in spite of my own conviction; and I believe that literally every stone on that mine has not only been turned, but reduced into an impalpable state by the experiments which the directors suggested, experiments which ought to have drawn blood from any stone, gentlemen. There was one instrument in particular, invented by—(here the military gentleman’s foot came down on mine with a crash)—an instrument, in short, which revolved on its axis for nearly a month, with a persistency that was quite pathetic; but in spite of its great merit, it was not exactly calculated to find a mineral which did not exist, and it failed to do so, probably owing to that very reason.
The only cause to which I can ascribe this extraordinary and, to me, monstrous deception, is a certain phenomenon over which I have puzzled in vain, gentlemen, and which Messrs. Zed and Ex may possibly be able to explain to you; I allude to the fact that gold was found to exist abundantly in the samples which were sent up to London for analysis.
Messrs. Zed and Ex have had much greater experience than I can boast; they were sent down to the mine repeatedly before I was employed; their remuneration was in proportion to the very high standing they occupy in the scientific world, as was also the unlimited confidence with which they managed to inspire the directors. Their numerous experiments, and the various quartz-crushing machines they have invented, and which are now lying all over the mine in a very rusty state, have cost you nearly 3000l.; and upon my honour, gentlemen, I can no more account for the positively ludicrous incompetency they have shown, to say the least, than I can for the wonderful simplicity of the directors, or the monstrous absurdity of the whole affair from beginning to end!.....
At this particular point the faces of Messrs. Zed and Ex grew so like my caricature of them, that my gravity being disturbed, I completely lost the thread of my discourse, and was obliged to bring it to an abrupt termination.
The shareholders who had emphasised certain little passages towards the close of my harangue, by occasional “hear—hears,” applauded with an energy that was flattering to nobody but me.
I cast an appealing look round the board, and the general expression of the faces which I saw there convinced me that I had somehow forfeited the regard of the directors, and made two very enthusiastic enemies of Messrs. Zed and Ex—in fact, that the place was getting rather hot for me; so I inquired of the chairman if he had any further questions to ask, and on his rather hurried reply in the negative, I pleaded important mining business to attend to, and left the room with a bow, which I tried to make as much like that of my friend the engineer, as possible.
A stormy discussion, audible in the street without, arose immediately after my departure, and I have no doubt the meeting was carried on after a very lively fashion, and that many remarks were elicited which were not of a very soothing nature to all parties concerned.
I, for my own part, felt tolerably happy, and did not experience any loss of appetite; I even sang with great brilliancy of execution at another musical party to which I was invited that evening.
On the morrow I was startled by receiving a very cold and concise letter from the board, stating that my services would be dispensed with for the future, and enclosing a cheque, for which it requested my acknowledgment. The chairman had written no apposite quotation from the Greek on the back of it, to temper the bitterness of my congé. But I found consolation in the cheque, and in the wonderful sensation of having blundered on to what appeared to me the right thing in this particular business, in spite of my inaptitude for business generally.
So I went down to the sea-side to recruit my health, and enjoy the approbation of my family. My father laughed very heartily at my description of the meeting of the shareholders, and told me that I had put my foot in it up to the arm-pits—which was his way of expressing that it was all right. My mother and sister were enthusiastic in their commendations—and I felt that my late experiences had fitted me morally to undergo the operation of shaving, in spite of all physical deficiency; and as that had been the object of my ambition for the last few months, I obtained the permission of my dear papa, and adopted the harmless habit forthwith.
It may be interesting to the reader to know that when I returned to town, the affairs of the Victoria Gold and Copper Mining Company had been wound up, and that the mine itself had entirely changed hands. At the present moment it is paying a handsome dividend, having been worked very successfully for copper, under another name.
Query: How did the gold get into the samples?
Moral: The mysteries of science are inscrutable to the uninitiated mind.
G. du Maurier.