In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

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! Huh!’

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.


‘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.

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