In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

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 hot delight. He met allies amongst the poets, and adored them. It is strange how sympathetic books drift to the hand of a reader possessed with a consuming idea; how they gather around him, fall open to his eye, and give up the thing he yearns to feed on. Without the knowledge necessary to selection, Jim had an affinity for books of pessimistic doctrine, and though both means and opportunities were limited, he gathered together, in the course of two years, quite a library of precious volumes, and he came forth from these an intellectual giant refreshed. He saw Chisley on a plane far below him, a sink of ignorance, and judged it like a god—or a boy. Whatever Chisley respected he found excellent occasion to despise; whatever it revered he discovered to be false and contemptible. His sense of superiority was magnificent; it gave him a glorious exultation. A few hot words with the clerical caretaker of the Chisley conscience over the question of Sabbath observance exposed the young man—the gaol-bird—as an infidel and a scoffer. Jim was no infidel, but communities like Chisley do not under stand subtle distinctions in theology. Here was fresh occasion to fear and abhor Jim o’ Mill End; here was justification for many evil prophecies.

For a time Jim revelled in his great moral superiority and dreamed dreams. But the gnawing impatience returned—the unrest, the craving for something he could not define, but which always merged itself into his great grievance. He lived alone. At his work—which he obtained readily, for he was strong and efficient, and gave double value for his wages—he had no mates. Girls he had seen grow up from babyhood developed into beautiful creatures, with miraculous eyes, round limbs, and cheeks so red, so tender, that their soft ripeness haunted his dreams. Under cover and in secret he would watch them pass or at play with a throbbing heart and a passionate hunger for companionship, and discover himself doing this with something of a shock, ashamed of his interest in his enemies, resentful of all emotions that ran counter to his cherished antipathies.

When the news of the discovery of fabulous gold deposits in far Australia reached Chisley, Jim had thoughts of a new life in a new land: he craved for a wide field and a wild life; nothing withheld him but pride, the egotism that would not permit of his abandoning a struggle even with men so contemptible as these ignorant villagers. But the hunger for humanity filled him with visions of a new society in which he would be one with his fellow-men, and then his enemies seemed so pitiful that he knew himself for fool and blind to waste a care upon them. So he sold the small property at Mill End, took up his few belongings, and left Chisley quietly by night, eager to leave all the old life behind him, anxious for the new.

Standing thus, looking out along the pathway of the Francis Cadman, Done had reviewed his life almost daily, sometimes broadly and briefly, as given here—sometimes going into excruciating details of suffering, shame, terror, and hate; but his eyes were always turned forward.

Done meditated uninterruptedly for nearly an hour. Gradually the conversation of the group behind him had drifted from his business and the affair of the previous night to the great absorbing topic of the past four months—Australia, the land of mad dreams, where the hills were powdered with precious ‘dust,’ and the rivers purled over nuggets of pure gold.

A hand fell upon the young man’s shoulder; he turned sharply, angrily, and beheld the bland face and trim figure of Captain Evan. With the Captain was a handsome lady in black, who had already created in Jim’s mind a confused impression of massed raven hair and big, innocent dark eyes that had a trick of floating up from under heavy lids and thick, long lashes to their greatest magnitude, and then disappearing again like revolving lights.

‘All right after your plunge, my lad?’ inquired the Captain heartily.

Done gave the expected reply, conscious of the eyes signalling appreciation, and there was a pause.

‘You do not inquire after the young lady, Done!’

‘I’ve heard the men speaking of her, Captain. I understand she’ pretty well?’

‘Still, a little gentlemanly attention, you know. She is most grateful.’

Done stiffened a trifle, and the line of brows asserted itself.

‘I don’t ape gentility,’ he said quietly. ‘I’m glad the young lady’s well again, but genteel formal ain’t much in my line, I think.’

‘Hem!’ The Captain’s eyes narrowed, his air of patronage lifted. He was as gentlemanly an old sea-dog as ever bully-damned a ship from the gates of hell on a blind night, and was proud of his first-cabin accomplishments. ‘This lady is Mrs. Donald Macdougal,’ he said. ‘Miss Lucy Woodrow is Mrs. Macdougal’s companion.’

Jim gathered his soft cap in a handful and bowed moderately; but the lady held out dainty gloved fingers, and flashed her bright eyes upon him.

‘We all think you quite a hero, Mr. Done,’ she lisped—‘quite!’

‘Fact is,’ said the Captain, ‘the ladies and gentle men greatly admire your noble conduct.’

‘Most noble and brave,’ added Mrs. Macdougal softly.

The young man had a presentiment of mischief, and fortified himself.

‘And,’ the Captain continued, ‘they have held a little meeting to consider the idea of—ah, expressing their appreciation in a—er——hem!—an adequate and proper manner.’

The Captain was quoting the chief orator—himself. He paused with an expectant air, but Done was apparently quite impassive; evidently the fact that the ladies and gentlemen of the first class wished to put on record their very proper respect for British pluck and the positive virtues by giving the hero of the moment an inscribed watch or a gold locket did not appeal to this young man.

The pause became uneasy. If Jim had betrayed some confusion—blushed stammered, protested—all would have been well; but he waited calmly. Captain Evan had only two manners—his polished, first-class maimer and his ship manner, the manner with which he worked the Francis Cadman—and it was a mere step from one to the other. For a moment he was perilously near assuming his natural and most successful manner, blasting Done to the depths for a high-stomached, adjectival swab, and commanding him out of hand to accept the proposed honours and emoluments with proper respect and gratitude, and be hanged to him.

‘Of course,’ said Mrs. Macdougal gracefully, ‘only if you approve, Mr. Done.’ But the inference was that he could do nothing less with such eyes openly beseeching him.

‘I can’t agree to this,’ said Jim decisively, addressing himself to the Captain.

‘Oh, come, you must not be shy!’ murmured the lady.

‘I cannot agree to any demonstration or accept any gifts,’ persisted Jim. ‘You’re very kind, I believe; but I’m reserved—I detest display.’

‘Still, you know, my man, brave actions like yours cannot be totally disregarded by feeling people.’

‘To be sure!’ from the lady.

‘Captain Evan,’ said the young man firmly, ‘ever since I came on board the Francis Cadman I’ve endeavoured to keep myself to myself. I asked nothing from anybody on this ship, but simply to be left alone. That’s all I ask now. Perhaps I appear boorish to the lady, but the instincts of a lifetime must be respected.’ Jim spoke like an old man. The lady found him very impressive.

‘Very well, Done,’ said the Captain, looking searchingly into Jim’s strong young face, ‘we’ll say no more about the matter.’ He moved away, but the lady extended the slim gloved fingers again, lowering her eyes for an effective unveiling.

‘I respect your feelings,’ she said, as if making great concession.

Really, the boy was most interesting, so handsome, so unusual. She smiled upon him like a guardian angel with exquisite teeth, and the scamp turned again to the sea, apostrophizing in fo’c’sle idiom all interfering fools and sentimental humbugs.

In the Roaring Fifties - Contents    |     III

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