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IN THE ROARING FIFTIES

By

EDWARD DYSON
1906

I

THE night was bright and cool, and the old East Indiaman moved slowly on
the heaving bosom of the ocean, under a strong full moon, like a
wind-blown ghost to whose wanderings there had been no beginning and
could be no end - so small, so helpless she seemed between the two
infinities of sea and sky. There was no cloud to break the blue
profundity of heaven, no line of horizon, no diversity in the long lazy
roll of the green waters to dispel the illusion of an interminable ocean.
The great crestless waves rose and fell with pulsing monotony, round,
smooth and intolerably silent. It was as if the undulating sea had been
stricken motionless, and the ship was damned to the Sisyphean task of
surmounting one mysterious hill that eternally reappeared under her prow,
and beyond which she might never pass. Suddenly the ghost faltered on the
crest of a wave, fluttering her rags in the moonlight, possessed with a
vague indecision. Shouting and the noise of hurrying feet broke the
silence. There was a startling upheaval of men; they swarmed in the
rigging, and faces were piled above the larboard bulwarks. A boat dropped
from the ship's side, striking the sea with a muffled sound, and was
instantly caught into the quaint lifting and falling motion of the
Francis Cadman, as the oily-backed waves slid under. Four men in the boat
bent smartly to the oars, a fifth stood erect in the prow, peering under
his hand over the waste of waters; another at the tiller encouraged the
rowers with cordial and well-meant abuse. A hundred people shouted futile
directions from the ship. The gravity of the Indian Ocean was disturbed
by the babble of dialects. One voice rose above all the rest, sonorous,
masterful, cursing the ship into order with a deliberate flow of
invective that had the dignity and force of a judgment.

The boat drew off rapidly. The men, squarely and firmly seated, bent
their heavy shoulders with machine-like movements, and when they threw
back their faces the rays of the moon glittered and flashed in their
dilated eyes and on their bared teeth. The sailor at the tiller swayed in
unison, and grunted encouragement, breaking every now and then into
bitter speech, spoken as if in reverent accord with the night and their
mission, in a low, pleading tone, much as a patient mother might address
a wayward child.

'Lift her, lads - lift her, blast you! Oh, my blighted soul, Ellis! I'd
get more square-pullin' out of a starved cat with ten kittens - I would,
by thunder! Now, men, all together! Huh! Huh! hub!'

The boatswain strained as if tugging a stubborn oar. In the interval of
silence that followed all bent attentive ears, but no call came from the
sea. The sleek oars dipped into the waves without a sound, and swung
noiselessly in the worn rowlocks. The man at the prow remained rigid as a
statue, and Coleman resumed his whispered invocation.

'Bend to it, you devils! One! two! three! Morton, don't go to sleep, you
swine! Ryan! Tadvers, you herrin'-gutted, boss-eyed son of a barber's
ape, are you rowin' or spoonin' up hot soup? Pull, men! Huh! That's a
clinker! Huh! Shift her! Huh! May the fiend singe you for a drowsy pack
o' sea-cows! Pull!'

The men threw every ounce of power into each stroke, the voice of the
boatswain blending with their efforts like an intoned benediction, and
the treacly sea foamed under the prow into drifted snow which ran merrily
in their wake. For a tense moment the boat hung poised upon a high
roller, as if about to be projected into the air, and the man in the
prow, electrified, threw out an arm with a dramatic gesture. The
instincts of the ex-whaler triumphed in that moment of excitement.

'There she blows!'

Instantly Coleman fell into a condition of profound agitation; he poured
out a lava-flow of vituperation upon the heads of his men; he cursed them
for weaklings and waster and hissed phrases shameful to them and
discreditable to their parents. The crew increased their stroke. Already
the perspiration was streaming from their indurated hides; their wet
faces and breasts glistened in the night. Every now and again the
look-out, discovering a black spot where the moon's rays splashed a
smooth-backed wave with silver, uttered an inarticulate cry that struck
the men like a spur, and all the time his pointing hand was a finger-post
to the steersman.

Meanwhile the object of this chase, a fragile, white-faced girl, had
fought with the mammoth waves as with inveterate beasts seeking to stifle
her in icy embraces. A mere atom plunged in their depths as in cavernous
and boundless darkness, she had struggled with an ocean the whole of the
focus of which were leagued against her, possessed all the time with a
foolish and trivial remembrance of child hood, the vision of a little
gray kitten, with a weight about its neck, striving to beat its way up
through clear waters, sending out tiny bubbles of crystal that danced in
mockery of its dying.

On the surface she was swung across seeming great distances, till a
strong arm out of the night and the vastness of things seized her, and
the tension of the struggle passed from her limbs, leaving a sense of
appeasement as sweet as sleep. She heard a man's voice directing her, and
obeyed without understanding. Now the sea supported her like a soft and
pleasant bed, she had no fear and little consciousness. A few stern words
buzzed in her head like bees - 'Sink your arms! Don't try to breathe when
we're under! Keep your mouth shut!' They were very absurd: they could
have nothing to do with her; but she had heard them somewhere, and she
obeyed.

The man lay well back in the water, with little more than his chin and
lips above the surface, his left hand, twisted in the woman's hair,
rested in the nape of her neck, sustaining her with scarcely an effort.
An ocean swimmer from his early boyhood, great waters had no terrors for
him, and when he found the drowning girl he knew that all would be well,
provided the ship's boats were successful in their search.

The girl was very tractable: she lay perfectly still. He looked into her
pale face; her eyes were wide open, staring straight up at the feeble
stars. Every minute or so he cried aloud, or whistled a shrill call
between his teeth, but the action did not disturb the flow of his
thoughts. Despite the peculiarity of his position, he had drifted into a
strange mood of introspection. Why had he done this thing? What was the
girl to him that at the first sight of her danger he should have
forgotten his philosophy of self, his pride in his contempt for his kind,
and his fine aloofness? She was no more in his life than any other of the
four hundred strangers on board. The act of leaping into the sea had been
a mere impulse, the prompting of an unsuspected instinct. She might hate
his race, but he was still its slave. All his life he had been an
Ishmael, feared and disliked; humankind had given him only cause to hate
and despise it, and yet blood remained stronger than belief when a human
life was in peril. The young man laughed, and the boat's from the Francis
Cadman, drawing near, heard the mocking laughter and ceased rowing,
chilled with a superstitious terror.

'Good God!' cried the look-out, 'there's two of 'em.'

The sailors turned in their seats, staring in stupid awe at two heads
clearly visible in the moonlight that lay like silver gossamer on the
dark green sea - two heads where they had expected to find but one. The
boatswain, frozen in the forward movement of his swing, glared
open-mouthed, speechless; he felt his stiff hair stirring strangely under
his hat, a pronounced uneasiness moved in the boat. Only one woman had
fallen from the ship, and here, out in the deep trough of the lone sea,
they found two creatures, and one laughed eerily. Sailormen believed in
many awesome mysteries: ghosts and goblins peopled the ocean like a vast
graveyard. The boat held off, and no man spoke, but Ryan shivered under
his skin, and fumbled his memory for the name of a potent saint.

'Ahoy, there!' cried the young man impatiently; but winning no response,
he swam slowly to meet the boat as she drifted. He raised the girl, and
one of the men seized her mechanically, and drew her limp form from the
water. No hand was offered to the rescuer, but as the boat lifted he
seized her prow, and drew himself aboard. All eyes were upon him, staring
dubiously.

'Divil take me if it ain't the Hermit!' gasped Ryan, with an expiration
of intense relief.

Coleman's stony expression instantly relaxed, he recovered himself with a
jerk of the bead.

'Well,' he murmured bitterly, 'of all the stuck pigs! What the blue fury
're ye all sittin' garpin' at like a lot o' demented damn kelpies? Give
way there! How's the young lady, Smith?'

'She don' seem perticler bad,' answered Smith doubtfully. He was
struggling to wrap his charge in a length of stiff, crackling sailcloth,
puzzled by the white face of the girl.

Coleman looked sharply at the young man, who was seated on the gunwale,
but, discovering no encouragement in his set face and careless eyes,
repressed his curiosity, and devoted himself to the task of overhauling
the Francis Cadman. It was a long and trying job, but he accomplished it
without having exhausted his eloquence. Indeed, his terms of endearment
had been cautiously selected throughout, out of a heroic respect for the
lady passenger. The boatswain's idea of language becoming in the presence
of the gentler sex was rather liberal, perhaps; but in any case his nice
consideration was wasted upon the girl, who heard never a word. She lay
as if in the grip of fever, her distorted mind pursuing quaint visions
and trifling and irrelevant ideas. As they drew near, the rescue-party
sent out a breathless cheer, which was answered from the ship with a wild
yell of exultation, and then a broadside of questions burst from the deck
of the Francis Cadman, where every creature on board excitedly awaited
the boat's return. The sonorous and masterful voice enforced silence
again with a sentence.

'How is it, bo's'n?' called the same voice a moment later.

'Got 'em both, sir,' answered Coleman.

'Both!'

'Ay, ay, sir!'

A tumult of voices surged over the ship again; the heads piled themselves
afresh, craning one above the other. Two had gone overboard! Only one had
been reported, and one only was missed. Interest was doubled. For four
weeks the Francis Cadman had been pottering about the Indian Ocean
without discovering a single adventure to break the stupid monotony of
sky and sea, and restore the faith of the passengers in their favourite
maritime authors; but here, at last, was a sensation and a mystery.

Perhaps, after all, it was no mere accident, but a tragedy. Men and women
thronged the deck, thrilling with sympathy, and yet secretly hoping for a
complete drama, even though someone must suffer.

The girl was first passed up. When the young man followed she had been
carried below. He was barefooted, and clad only in singlet and trousers;
his coat and shirt had been discarded in the sea.

Ryan's expression sprang from every tongue.

'The Hermit!'

The young man stood with his shoulders to the gunwale, facing the crowd.
There was something resentful in his attitude. His face was that of a man
about twenty-two, beardless and boyish, but the firm, straight mouth,
with its compressed, slightly protuberant lips, and the thick line of
dark brows, throwing the eyes into shadows, imparted an appearance of
sullen reserve that belonged to an older face. His scrutiny condemned men
and repelled them. His figure, about three inches above middle height,
was that of a labourer whose strength was diffused through the limbs by
swift and subtle exercise. There was nothing rugged in his powerful
outline, and every attitude had an architectural suggestion of strength.

Captain Evan peered at the youth closely, and not without a hint of
suspicion. 'Your name's Done, isn't it?' he said.

The Hermit nodded shortly.

'How did all this happen, my man?'

'I was leaning on the gunnel by the main-chains when I heard a cry and a
splash, and saw the girl's body past. I dropped in after her.'

'You saved her life, then?'

'I helped her to keep afloat till the boat reached us.'

'Good boy!' Captain Evan put out his hand as if with the intention of
giving Done an approving pat on the shoulder, but the young man turned
away abruptly, thrusting himself through the men, who had clustered
around him muttering diffident compliments, and endeavouring to shake him
by the hand.

'Blast it all, don't maul a man about!' said the hero sulkily, and the
crowd made way for him.

Below Jim Done stripped hastily, wrung out his wet clothes upon the
littered floors and climbed into his bunk, threatening to tear down a
whole terrace of the crazy structures as he did so.

The Francis Cadman was not ordinarily a passenger boat: she was
commissioned to carry two hundred and fifty sailors to the ships left
helpless in Corio Bay and Hobson's Bay, deserted by their crews, who, in
spite of official strategies, had fled to the diggings immediately after
anchors were dropped in Victorian waters.

The accommodation for the men was the roughest imaginable. Bunks of
unplaned timber were strung up in tiers under the forecastle, and
wherever space could be found for them in the dark and musty depths of
the ship. A few second-class male passengers shared these delectable
quarters with the sailors, and the Francis Cadman had secured a
complement of first-class patrons willing to pay exorbitant prices for
the dubious comforts and plain fare of the 'cabin' passage.

The gold lust was burning in the blood of Europe. Fabulous stories of
Australian treasures were flying about the nations; greedy ears drank
them in, and the wildest yarns were never doubted. In their frantic
eagerness to share in the golden harvests being reaped at Buninyong,
Clunes, Bendigo, and Ballarat, the people wasted no thought on the
hardships of the journey; there was not a ship too crazy or a doghole too
dark to carry the desperate adventurers.

Jim Done's bunk was in a third story. The den it was built in was like a
steam-warm pest-house in the hot latitudes, and in the cold a clammy
tomb; but he had no thought of complaints. A new country and a new life
lay before him; he cared little for the troubles and privations by the
way. To-night his mind was given over to reflections arising out of the
incidents of the last few hours. They were not pleasant reflections. The
adventure loomed like a misfortune. He hated the idea of the notoriety it
would bring him; and, picturing himself the object of the sentimental
admiration of a score of simpering busybodies of both sexes, fumed
fiercely, and framed biting invectives. A voice close to his ear startled
him. Turning sharply, he saw the head of Phil Ryan on a level with his
own. Phil was standing on the lowermost bunk, offering the first tribute,
a pint pannikin of steaming hot grog.

''Tis the thing the docthor orthered,' said Ryan, with timorous humour,
fearing an ungenerous response.

It was Jim's first impulse to refuse the offer with out compliments, but
at that moment the greasy ship's lantern swinging above them on a rope's
end illumined the Irishman's face, and Done saw his mark upon it - a long
purple wheal under the left eye, a week old yesterday, but still
conspicuous. For a reason he could not have explained even to himself,
that changed the young man's mind. He drank the liquor, and returned the
pannikin with a 'Thank you!' not over-cordial.

'Yer a proper man, Done,' said Ryan, 'an' I'm proud I fought wid ye, an'
mighty glad ye bate me. Good-night!'

'Good-night,' answered Done coldly. He had been too long at variance with
men to take kindly to popularity now.

II

NEXT morning Done lingered below till the day was well advanced, but the
darkness and the heavy atmosphere 'tween decks drove him into the open.
It was a fair day, a big placid sun was shining, and the breeze followed
them with a crisp suggestion of glittering ice-fields far down in the
south. The sailors and passengers were grouped in small parties of six or
seven, lounging about the deck in lazy abandonment, leaning over the
side, smoking comfortably, and spitting with a certain dreamy
satisfaction into the sweet, clean sea, or sitting in rings on improvised
seats, alert, and loud in argument.

Jim's youthful face was even more than usually forbidding that morning as
he stepped amongst the men to his favourite position on one of the guns.
He feared an attempt to break through his reserve, some demonstration
arising out of last night's adventure, that might be taken advantage of
by the men to force their society and friendship upon him. He looked at
none of the faces turned curiously in his direction, and his expression
of stubborn enmity killed the cheer that sprang from a few of the
forecastle passengers, and it tailed into a feeble absurdity. Leaning
upon the old wooden gun-carriage, with his arms supporting his chin; he
stared at the cleavage of the green sea and the swelling foam, feeling at
his back all the time the cackle of criticism, like an irritation of the
spinal marrow, chafing fretfully at this further proof of the failure of
his long endeavour to school himself into complete indifference.

Absolute serenity in the teeth of public opinion - good, bad, or
indifferent - that was an ideal frame of mind, to the attainment of which
he had set himself when still a mere boy; but men and women remained
powerful to hurt and to auger him. He had acquired from his long moral
exercise a certain power of restraint up to the point at which his fierce
temper blazed; he reached the stage of ignition without those displays of
sparks and smoke that are usual preliminaries to a 'flare-up.' He had
learned, too, in the course of his schooling, to simulate an imposing
unconcern under commonplace trials and tribulations, when it so pleased
him, and between the satisfaction to be felt in being able successfully
to assume a given virtue and in having actual possession of that virtue
the distinction is too delicate for unregenerate minds.

The young man did not envelop himself in his spare skin of
imperturbability at this crisis, because he felt that some show of active
resentment was necessary to repel effusive admirers and maintain the
barrier he had set up between himself and his fellow-travellers. When Jim
Done set foot on board the Francis Cadman he was flying from an
intolerable life, seeking to escape from despair. This he did not admit
to himself, for he had the indomitable pride of a lonely man who gave to
thought the time that should have been gloriously wasted on boon
companions and young love.

Done was a sensitive man, who had been some thing of a pariah since his
knickerbocker period, and was first the butt and later the bane of the
narrow, convention-governed public of a small English village. A fierce
defiance of the people amongst whom he had lived his life kept him in his
native place till after his twenty-first birthday. He rebelled with all
his soul against the animal unreason of these men, women, and children,
puzzling over the fanatical stupidity of their prejudice, and, striving
to beat it down, intensified it and kept it active long years after all
might have been forgotten had he bowed meekly to 'the workings of
Providence,' as manifested in the thinkings and doings of the Godfearing
people of Chisley.

When James Done was five years old the only murder that had been
committed in Chisley district within the memory of the oldest inhabitant
was done by a member of little Jim's family. The murderer was tried,
found guilty, and sentenced accordingly.

The murder had a romantic plot and melodramatic tableaux, and was
incorporated in the history of Chisley - in fact, it was the history of
Chisley.

The murderer passed out, but his family remained, and upon them fell the
horror of his deed, the disgrace of his punishment. They became creatures
apart. With all Chisley understood of the terror in those dread words,
'Thou shalt not kill,' it invested the unhappy family, and they bowed as
if to the will of God.

Jim's mother, a thin, sensitive woman, with a patient face, put on a
black veil, and was never afterwards seen abroad without it. She helped
her boy a few weary miles along the road of life, and then one evening
went quietly to her room and died. Jim's sister, ten years older than
himself, took up the struggle where the mother dropped it, and sustained
it until the boy could go into the fields and earn a mean living for
himself, at which point she drowned herself, leaving a quaint note in
which she stated that life was too dreadful, but she hoped 'God and Jimmy
would forgive her - especially Jimmy.'

At this stage Chisley might have forgiven Jimmy, and condescended to
forget, and even indulge itself in some sentimental compassion for the
poor orphan, had the boy shown any disposition to accept these advances
kindly and with proper gratitude; but for years Jim had been reasoning
things out in a direct, childish way, and in his loneliness he was filled
with an inveterate hatred. He chose to live on as he had lived, accepting
no concessions, disguising nothing, and Chisley quite conscientiously
discovered in his sullen exclusiveness and his vicious dislike of worthy
men the workings of homicidal blood, and accepted him as an enemy of
society.

Early in his teens Jim recognised the value of brute strength and human
guile in his dealings with the youth of Chisley, and set himself to work
to cultivate his physical qualities. All that the pugilists and wrestlers
could teach him he picked up with extraordinary quickness, and to the
arts thus acquired he added cunning tricks of offence and defence of his
own contriving. He had a peculiar aptitude for wrestling and pugilism,
delighted secretly in his strength and swiftness, and would walk five
miles to plunge like a porpoise in the stormy sea.

He had submitted to much in his joyless youth, but now, conscious of his
strength and expertness in battle, he set himself deliberately to defy
his enemies and resent with force of arms every encroachment upon his
liberty, every insolence. There was a sudden epidemic of black eyes
amongst the youth of the village; cut faces, broken ribs, and noses of
abnormal size served the heirs of Chisley as stinging reminders of the
old shame and the new courage and power of Jim o' Mill End, that being
the name given to the boy in accordance with an awkward provincial custom
of identifying a man with his property, the situation of his residence,
or some peculiarity of manner.

On one occasion the lad fell upon a hobbledehoy who had just given a
highly diverting pantomime representing the hanging of a man, with
realistic details, and, having beaten him in fair fight, broke his
collar-bone with an atrocious fall. For this outrage Jim o' Mill End was
called upon to answer to the law, and, the answer he had to give being
considered wholly unsatisfactory, Jim was sent to gaol for a term of
days.

Chisley, if Slow to discover its mistakes, was not wholly imbecile; it
learned in time to respect the fists of Jim o' Mill End, and now hated
him quite heartily for the restraint imposed. But Jim derives little
satisfaction from his triumph; Chisley conquered him by stupid
submission. His physical superiority won him nothing but immunity from
open insult; the young men and their elders were careful to give him no
reasonable opportunity of asserting the rights of man in their teeth with
a dexterous left, and Jim was now beyond disputing with children. The
unhappy boy was not deceived by the new attitude his neighbours had
assumed towards him. He saw an increased dislike behind the stolid,
animal-like faces that met him everywhere, and felt that silence was
worse than insult, more galling than blows. He detected jeers under the
mask of dogged respect, and had passionate impulses to beat and tear,
finding himself still powerless against the brutal injustice that had
poisoned his life.

Baffled here, Jim o' Mill End turned greedily to the fount of wisdom
seeking justification for his deep contempt for his fellows,
corroboration of his opinions as to the stupidity, ignorance, and
vileness of mankind, He read greedily, finding justification everywhere.
Poets, philosophers, novelists, historians - they had all found man out,
just as he had done. Discovering an echo of his beliefs, he thrilled with


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Online LibraryEdward DysonIn the Roaring Fifties → online text (page 1 of 21)