It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
Three days the gold-finders worked alone upon the pre-Adamite river's bed. At evening on the third day they looked up and saw a figure perched watching them with a pipe in its mouth. It disappeared in silence. Next day there were men on their knees beside them, digging, scraping, washing and worshipping gold. Soon they were the center of a group--soon after of a humming mob. As if the birds had really carried the secret north, south, east and west, men swarmed and buzzed and settled like locusts on the gold-bearing tract. They came in panting, gleaming, dusty and travel-stained and flung off their fatigue at sight, and, running up, dived into the gullies and plied spade and pickax with clinched teeth and throbbing hearts. They seamed the face of Nature for miles; turned the streams to get at their beds; pounded and crushed the solid rock to squeeze out the subtle stain of gold it held in its veins; hacked through the crops as through any other idle impediment; pecked and hewed and fought and wrestled with Nature for the treasure that lay so near yet in so tight a grip.
We take off our clothes to sleep and put them on to play at work, but these put on their clothes to sleep in, and tore them off at peep of day, and labor was red-hot till night came and cooled it; and in this fight lives fell as quickly as in actual war, and by the same enemy--Disease. Small wonder, when hundreds and hundreds wrought the livelong day one half in icy water, the other half dripping with sweat.
Men rotted like sheep, and died at the feet of that Gold whom they stormed here in his fortress; and some alas met a worse fate. For that befell which the world has seen in every age and land where gold has come to light upon a soil; men wrestling fiercely with Nature jostled each other; cupidity inflamed hate to madness, and human blood flowed like water over that yellow dirt. And now from this one burning spot gold fever struck inward to the heart of the land; burned its veins and maddened its brain. The workman sold his tools, bought a spade and a pickax, and fled to the gold; the lawyer flung down his parchment and off to the gold; the penny-a-liner his brass pen and off to a greater wonder than he had ever fabricated; the schoolmaster to whom little boys were puzzling out
Quid non mortalia pectora cogis Auri sacra fames--
made the meaning perfectly clear; he dropped ferrule and book and ran with the national hunt for gold. Shops were closed for want of buyers and sellers; the grass crept up between the paving-stones in great thoroughfares; outward-bound ships lay deserted and helpless in the roads; the wilderness was peopled and the cities desolate; commerce was paralyzed, industry contracted. The wise and good trembled for the destiny of the people, the government trembled for itself--idle fear. That which shook this colony for a moment settled it as firm as a granite mountain and made it great with a rapidity that would have astounded the puny ages cant appeals to as the days of wonders.
The sacra fames was not Australian, but human; and so at the first whisper of gold the old nations poured the wealth they valued--their food and clothes and silk and coin--and the prime treasure they valued not, their men--into that favored land.
Then did great Labor, insulted and cheated so many years in narrow, overcrowded corners of the huge unpeopled globe, lift his bare arm and cry, "Who bids for this?" and a dozen gloved hands jumped and clutched at the prize. And in bargains where a man went on one side and money on the other, the money had to say, "Thank you," over it instead of the man.
But still, though the average value of labor was now full as high in the cities as in the mine, men flowed to the desert and the gold, tempted by the enormous prizes there, that lay close to all and came to fortune's favorites.
Hence a new wonder, a great moral phenomenon the world had never seen before on such a wide scale. At a period of unparalleled civilization and refinement, society, with its artificial habits and its jealous class distinctions on its back, took a sudden unprepared leap from the heights it had been centuries constructing--into a gold mine; it emerged, its delicate fabric crushed out of all recognizable shape, its petty prides annihilated, and even its just distinctions turned topsy-turvey. For mind is really more honorable than muscle, yet when these two met in a gold mine it fared ill with mind. Classical and mathematical scholars joined their forces with navvies to dig gold; and nearly always the scholars were found after a while cooking, shoe cleaning, and doing generally menial offices for the navvies.
Those who had no learning, but had good birth, genteel manners and kid gloves and feeble loins, sunk lower and became the dregs of gold-digging society ere a week's digging had passed over their backs. Not that all wit yielded to muscle. Low cunning often held its own; hundreds of lazy leeches settled on labor's bare arm and bled it. Such as could minister to the diggers' physical needs, appetites, vices, had no need to dig; they made the diggers work for them, and took toll of the precious dust as it fell into their hands.
One brute that could not spell chicory to save himself from the gallows cleared two thousand pounds a month by selling it and hot water at a pinch a cup. Thus ran his announcement, "Cofy allus rady."
Meantime Trigonometry was frying steaks and on Sunday blacking boots.
After a while lucky diggers returned to the towns clogged with gold, and lusting and panting for pleasure.
They hired carriages and sweethearts, and paraded the streets all day, crying, "We be the hairy-stocracy, now!!"
The shopkeepers bowed down and did them homage.
Even here Nature had her say. The sexes came out--the men sat in the carriages in their dirty fustian and their checkered shirts and no jacket; their inamoritas beside them glittered in silk and satin. And some fiend told these poor women it was genteel to be short-sighted; so they all bought gold spy-glasses, and spied without intermission.
Then the old colonial aristocracy, who had been born in broadcloth and silk, and unlike the new had not been transported, but only their papas and mammas, were driven to despair; but at last they hit upon a remedy. They would be distinguished by hook or by crook, and the only way left now was always to go on foot. So they walked the pavement--wet or dry, nothing could induce them to enter the door of a carriage. Item: they gave up being shortsighted; the few who for reasons distinct from fashion could not resign the habit concealed it, as if it was a defect instead of a beauty.
This struggle of classes in the towns, with its hundred and one incidents, was an excellent theme for satire of the highest class. How has it escaped? is it that even Satire, low and easy art, is not so low and easy as Detraction? But these are the outskirts of a great theme. The theme itself belonged, not to little satire, but to great epic.
In the sudden return of a society far more complex, artificial and conventional than Pericles ever dreamed of, to elements more primitive than Homer had to deal with; in this, with its novelty, and nature, and strange contrasts,
In the old barbaric force and native color of the passions, as they burst out undisguised around the gold,
In the hundred and one personal combats and trials of cunning,
In a desert peopled, and cities thinned by the magic of cupidity,
In a huge army collected in ten thousand tents, not as heretofore by one man's constraining will, but each human unit spurred into the crowd by his own heart,
In "the siege of Gold," defended stoutly by Rock and Disease,
In the world-wide effect of the discovery, the peopling of the earth at last according to Heaven's long-published and resisted design,
Fate offered poetry a theme broad and high, yet piquant, and various as the dolphin and the rainbow.
I cannot sing this song, because I am neither Lamartine, nor Hugo, nor Walter Scott. I cannot hum this song, because the severe conditions of my story forbid me even to make the adventurous attempt. I am here to tell, not the great tale of gold, but the little story of how Susan Merton was affected thereby. Yet it shall never be said that my pen passed close to a great man or a great thing without a word of homage and sympathy to set against the sneers of groveling criticasters, the blindness of self-singing poetasters, and the national itch for detraction of all great things and men that live, and deification of dead dwarfs.
God has been bountiful to the human race in this age. Most bountiful to Poets; most bountiful to all of us who have a spark of nobleness in ourselves, and so can see and revere at sight the truly grand and noble (any snob can do this after it has been settled two hundred years by other minds that he is to do it). He has given us warlike heroes more than we can count--far less honor as they deserve; and valor as full of variety as courage in the Iliad is monotonous--except when it takes to its heels.
He has given us one hero, a better man than Hector or Achilles. For Hector ran away from a single man; this hero was never known to run away at all. Achilles was a better egotist than soldier; wounded in his personal vanity, he revenged himself, not on the man who had wronged him--Prudence forbade--but on the army, and on his country. This antique hero sulked; my hero, deprived of the highest command, retained a higher still--the command that places the great of heart above all petty personal feeling. He was a soldier, and could not look from his tent on battle and not plunge into it. What true soldier ever could? He was not a Greek but a Frenchman--and could not love himself better than his country. Above all, he was not Achilles, but Canrobert.
He has given us to see Nineveh disinterred by an English hero.
He has given us to see the northwest passage forced, and winter bearded on his everlasting throne, by another. (Is it the hero's fault if self and snowdrop-singing poetasters cannot see this feat with the eyes of Camoens?)
He has given us to see Titans enslaved by man; Steam harnessed to our carriages and ships; Galvanism tamed into an alphabet--a Gamut, and its metal harp-strings stretched across the earth malgre' mountains and the sea, and so men's minds defying the twin monsters Time and Space; and now, gold revealed in the East and West at once, and so mankind now first in earnest peopling the enormous globe. Yet old women and children of the pen say, this is a bad, a small, a lifeless, an unpoetic age--and they are not mistaken. For they lie.
As only tooth-stoppers, retailers of conventional phrases, links in the great cuckoo-chain, universal pill-venders, Satan, and ancient booksellers' ancient nameless hacks can lie, they lie.
It is they who are small-eyed. Now, as heretofore, weaklings cannot rise high enough to take a bird's-eye view of their own age, and calculate its dimensions.
The age, smaller than epochs to come, is a giant compared with the past, and full of mighty materials for any great pen in prose or verse.
My little friends aged nineteen and downward--fourscore and upward--who have been lending your ears to the stale little cant of every age, as chanted in this one by Buffo-Bombastes and other foaming-at-the-pen old women of both sexes--take by way of antidote to all that poisonous, soul-withering drivel, ten honest words.
I say before heaven and earth that the man who could grasp the facts of this day and do an immortal writer's duty by them, i.e., so paint them as a later age will be content to engrave them, would be the greatest writer ever lived. Such is the force, weight and number of the grand topics that lie this day on the world's face. I say that he who has eyes to see may now see greater and far more poetic things than human eyes have seen since our Lord and his Apostles and his miracles left the earth.
It is very hard to write a good book or a good play, or to invent a good picture, and having invented paint it. But it always was hard, except to those--to whom it was impossible. Bunglers will not mend matters by blackening the great canvases they can't paint on, nor the impotent become males by detraction.
When we write a story or sing a poem of the great nineteenth century, there is but one fear--not that our theme will be beneath us, but we miles below it; that we shall lack the comprehensive vision a man must have from heaven to catch the historical, the poetic, the lasting features of the Titan events that stride so swiftly past IN THIS GIGANTIC AGE.