In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

LUCY WOODROW did not appear on the deck until after nightfall. Jim understood that she would insist upon expressing lifelong gratitude with the usual effusion and the usual tears. He feared the ordeal, and prepared himself for it. He had seen the girl often during the voyage, sometimes accompanied by a blonde youth, whose beautiful clothes and exquisite manners afforded unfailing material for primitive satire in the forecastle, but, as a rule, quite alone, muffled in a dark, hooded cloak, watching the sea, always with her face turned yearningly back, as if England and home lay straight out along the vessel’s wake. She was middling tall, eighteen perhaps, with a thin but supple and pleasing figure, and a quiet, smileless face, that wanted only happiness to make it beautiful.

Done’s misanthropy was not a quality of his nature, it was thrust upon him, and did not prevent his being a close observer of men and things; but that he had the smallest interest in any person on board was not believed by one of his shipmates, since he was instinctively careful to betray no concern. He had been struck by the girl’s apparent loneliness. The attentions of the blonde youth were borne meekly, as part of the contiguous discomforts—that much was obvious to the forecastle and all under. It never occurred to Jim that she was probably placed like himself, and had good reason to stand aloof.

When he had been on board the Francis Cadman a month or so, Jim was amazed to find that the attitude of the passengers and the crew towards himself was almost analogous to that of the people of Chisley. Nearly every phase of feeling that was manifested amongst the villagers presented itself here, and he was troubled. His first suspicion was that his identity had become known. He had small knowledge of men, and a sick fear gripped him at the thought that all communities were alike, and would reflect the suspicions and animosities of his little village if it were known among them that one of his blood had done murder, and had suffered as a murderer. But no whisper of his story reached his ears, and he remained perplexed. He had yet to learn that society in all its phases is ever intensely suspicious of the man apart. His one desire had been that he might be lost amongst the passengers, that he might efface himself in the crowd by keeping carefully out of every man’s way and concerning himself with the interests of none. By doing this he hoped to land in Australia unknown, unheeded, and start his life again, cut off from the past completely. He had only succeeded in making himself notorious. He was silent, reserved, but he was different to the others, and to hide amongst sheep one must be a sheep. Jim’s very anxiety to escape notice made him conspicuous. His aloofness was resented as ‘dirty pride,’ and, being strange to all, he became the butt of many.

Jim Done was not of the type that rough-living men select as the victims of their small jokes; but in the forecastle the disposition to play upon the Hermit developed from small and secret things into open harassment, and Jim’s stoicism was wholly misconstrued. He did not seem to see things that would have caused others in the company to fill the ship with bad language and dread of death; he was impervious to rhymed jibes and broad sarcasms that were supposed to have peculiar powers of irritation if repeated constantly, day after day and night after night, without any apparent feeling, or motive, or reason under the sun.

Fire was struck one evening with a particularly good joke played upon Done in his bunk. Jim stepped down amongst the laughing men in his shirt, and selecting the one whose laugh was loudest and most hearty, he struck him an open-handed blow that drove him like a log along the floor. There was little noise. A narrow ‘ring’ was improvised, two or three bits of candle were found to help the sooty ship’s lantern, and the men fought as they stood.

Jim’s opponent was Phil Ryan, a smart young sailor, six or seven years his senior. The fight was short but lively, and the onlookers had not one word of comment to offer after the first round. The men gazed at Done with a ludicrous expression of stupid reproach. He had deceived, betrayed them; he had posed as a quiet, harmless man, with the manners of an aristocrat, when he might have been ship’s champion at any moment by merely putting up his hands.

Phil went down five times. The fifth time he remained seated, gazing straight before him, with one sad, meditative eye, and another that looked as if it could never be of any use as an eye again.

‘Get up, Ryan!’ urged Phil’s second.

Phil did not move; he gave no indication of having heard.

‘Ryan, get up, man!’ The second prompted him with his toe.

‘Meanin’ me?’ said the vanquished.

‘To be sure. Be a man! Get up and face him.’

‘Divil a fear o’ me!’ said Ryan. ‘I’m never goin’ to get up agin till you put that wild man to bed.’ He pointed at Jim.

‘Are you licked, then, Ryan?’

‘Licked it is. Any man is li’ble to wander into error, maybe, but there’s wan thing about Phil Ryan, he’s open to conviction, an’ he’s had all the conviction he wants this blessed night.’

‘Then we’ve had enough?’ said the second, with an uneasy eye on Jim.

‘We have that,’ continued Ryan, ‘onless some other gintleman would like to resoom th’ argumint where I dthropped it.’ The fallen hero ran his good eye eagerly from face to face.

But Done had already returned to his bunk, and the others seemed indisposed to put him to further trouble. No more jokes were played upon the Hermit. The cynics and the wits developed a pronouncedly serious vein, and it was resolved that for the future Jim Done should take his own road, and behave in his own peculiar way, without provoking objection from the company.

‘Tis a curtyis an’ gintlemanly risolution,’ said Ryan, tenderly caressing his inflated eye, ‘an’ a great pity it is we forgot to think iv it sooner.’

The respect the forecastle had acquired for Done was vastly increased by his rescue of Lucy Woodrow. Conduct that had previously been ascribed to mere conceit was now accounted for by most romantic imaginings, for it is a cardinal belief amongst men of their class that the true fighter is superior to all little weaknesses and small motives. When the girl crossed the moonlit deck to Done’s side, the sailors drifted away out of earshot, and inquisitive eyes could not turn in Jim’s direction without provoking a profane reproof.

Done’s heart beat heavily as the slim, dark figure faced him, extending a trembling hand.

‘I am Lucy Woodrow,’ she said in a voice little above a whisper.

‘Yes,’ he answered simply.

Her hand closed upon his fingers, and she was silent for a moment, evidently deeply agitated. Her head was bent, hiding her face from his eyes; and he noticed curiously the moonlight glimmering like tiny sparks in her red-brown hair.

‘You saved my life,’ she continued; ‘you risked your own. I thank you with all my heart.’

There was something in her voice that made the simple, formal words quite eloquent, but Jim scarcely heeded them; he was terrified lest she should kiss his hand, and withdrew it abruptly.

‘I can only say thank you—thank you! And one says that in gratitude for a mere politeness. But you understand, don’t you? My heart is full.’

‘Yes, I understand,’ he said. ‘Now, please, try to say no more about it. I’m glad to have helped you; but the risk I took was very small after all. I’ve almost lived in the sea.’

She raised her face and looked into his eyes.

‘It is very easy for you to speak like that,’ she said; ‘but I know that if it were not for you at this moment my poor body—’ She sobbed and turned to the sea, with something of its terror and desolation in her face, and Done understood the grim idea that possessed her.

‘Thank God, it was not to be!’ he said; and he felt more deeply at that moment than he had done for many years.

Lucy Woodrow remained silent, leaning upon the gunwale with her face to the sea, and he noticed presently that she was weeping, and was silent too. When she spoke again the new feeling in her voice startled him.

‘Why did you save me?’ she asked in a passionate whisper.

‘Why?’ He was full of wonder, and repeated the interrogation vaguely.

‘Yes, why—why? You had no right!’

‘Is it a matter of right?’ he asked, stunned. ‘I saw you fall. I don’t know why I jumped over. My next conscious action was of striking out in the water. The act was quite involuntary.’

‘You had no right!’ Her voice was very low, but instinct with a grief that was tragic.

‘Tell me what you mean.’ Unconsciously, he spoke in the soothing tone one adopts towards an injured child.

‘I did not fall overboard.’

‘Then, what happened?’

‘I threw myself into the sea!’

‘You—you wished to drown?’

‘Yes, I wanted to die—to be rid of my wretched, empty life.’

Done was thrilled. He gazed earnestly upon the frail young figure; he had a dawning sense of the possibilities of life and emotion in others. He, too, had often thought of self-slaughter in an abstract way as the final defiance; but here was a mere girl for whom life held so little that she craved for and dared death. A remembrance of his own sister came back to him, softening his heart to pity. He touched Lucy’s arm gently.

‘And when you were thanking me just now,’ he said, ‘you—’

‘I lied? No, no, no!’ she cried, with a revulsion of feeling; ‘I meant it! I am grateful—indeed I am grateful! I longed to die; but the thought of washing about in these terrible waters makes me ill with fear. When the waves took hold of me and swept me under I wished to live—I had a wild yearning for life. Many times since last night I have felt the water sucking me down and the mighty waves piling above me, and have felt again the utter helplessness and terror.’ Shuddering, she covered her face with her hands, but continued speaking after a moment’s pause. ‘It was horrible to die; but I am wretched—wretched! and I shall never be brave enough to venture again—never!’

She threw the hood back from her abundant hair and stood a little apart, her hands pressed upon her eyes, struggling with her tears, already wondering at the sudden, overwhelming emotion that had swept her into this betrayal. He mused in a troubled way, perplexed by her contradictions avowal, feeling that, after all, he might have done this girl a great wrong.

‘Has your life been so unhappy, then?’ he asked.

‘It has been too happy,’ she replied in a constrained voice.

‘Too happy?’

‘If I had learned to know sorrow sooner I could have borne it better, perhaps; but until a year ago my life was all happiness. Before that I had those who loved me, and neither fears nor cares. My father died, and mother followed him within seven months. I was their only child; I found myself alone, beset with anxieties and terrors, utterly desolate. I am going to be Mrs. Macdougal’s companion at her husband’s sheep-run, deep in the Australian Bush, and to teach their children. Since coming aboard I have been too much alone; I have had too much time to think of my hopelessness, my loneliness. There were moments when I seemed to be cut off from the world. It was in one of these moments that I—I—’ She made a significant gesture. Her voice had grown faint, and her limbs trembled.

‘Stay,’ he said gently, ‘I’ll get you a seat.’

His concern about this stranger, his curiosity, occasioned no self-questionings, no probing into motives. For the time being his customary attitude of mind—that of the pessimist sceptically weighing every emotion—deserted him. He had been, in his small circle in Chisley, the one person with a tangible grievance against life, but here he found another at more bitter variance with Fate, and weaker by far for the fight. A mutual grievance is a strong bond. He was lifted out of himself. When he returned he found Lucy Woodrow much more composed. She thanked him, and seated herself in the shadow.

‘Mr. Done,’ she said, ‘I owe you an apology. You did me a great service, and I have made that an excuse for inflicting my troubles upon you.’ Jim noted the conventional phrases with a feeling of uneasiness. ‘You are very kind, but something I have confessed I want you to forget. I lost control of myself.’

‘You may trust me to say nothing.’

‘Yes, yes; I am sure of that,’ she added hastily, ‘but I want you to forget. I should not like to see it in your face if we meet again.’

‘Why fear that? For what you did you have to answer to yourself alone.’

‘I did not confess the truth even to Mrs. Macdougal,’ the girl went on in a low voice. ‘I have been a little hysterical, and it is very good of you to bear with me.’

‘I’m glad you told me; it gives me an interest, and I’ve never been interested in the fate of another human creature since I was a mere boy.’

‘I did wrong in the sight of God. You have saved me from a great crime.’

‘No! If life had become unbearable you were justified. When you said I had no right to interfere, you spoke the truth. No man has the right to insist upon a fellow-creature continuing to live when life has become intolerable.’ Jim was most emphatic on this point.

‘Hush! Oh, hush! I know I said it, and I have thought it too; but the thought was born of weakness and cowardice.’

Done, who thought he understood himself clearly, and believed he had a plan of life as precise and logical as the multiplication table, was puzzled by a nature almost wholly emotional, and she continued:

‘I mean to be brave, to meet the future with hope. It was my loneliness that terrified me. I thought it might be always so, but perhaps real happiness awaits me out there. I may make true friends.’

She spoke eagerly, anxiously, seeking corroboration, looking to him for encouragement with touching wistfulness, as if he had been a graybeard and an old and trusted friend, rather than a mere youth in years, and an acquaintance of only a few hours.

He felt the appeal, and tried to respond.

‘Yes yes,’ he said. ‘Then, at least, one can always fight the world. If we can’t be loved, we can make ourselves feared. There’s a great deal in that.’

The girl was surprised at his warmth, and a little startled by his philosophy.

‘I could not think that,’ she said softly. ‘It must be terrible to be feared—to meet always with doubt and shrinking where you look for confidence and affection.’

‘But when the world refuses to accept us, when it uses all our fine emotions as scourges to torture us, then we must fight.’

‘I—I fight the world!’ The girl rose in some agitation, and raised two tremulous hands, as if in evidence of her weakness.

The gesture staggered him a little. He had been not so much defining her position as defending his own, and although he could see the futility of his principle of resentment as applied to her case, it was not in his nature to preach the pleasing gospel of sentimental optimism. He had no words of comfort to offer her; the gentle platitudes of encouragement and consolation she needed, and which would have fallen so glibly from the lips of an average man, were impossible to him. He was silent.

‘One had better die,’ continued Lucy Woodrow, ‘than live at enmity with one’s fellow-creatures. Ah! the world is good and kind, under its seeming cruelties. People are more generous than we know, but we should meet them with open hearts, and give a warm welcome to their affection and confidence. There must be something evil in the nature that is shut out from human sympathy, human fellowship—something wanting in the heart that is lonely, where there are scores of men and women eager to give friendship and love. We repel those who are drawn to us by their goodness of heart; we refuse what we most long for, and then blame others because we are unhappy.’

The girl was speaking the thoughts in which she had vainly sought comfort. She ceased abruptly, and, moving to the side, stood with her eyes turned yearningly back over the sea, oppressed by her loneliness and the home-sickness that had not left her since the shores of England faded from her sight.

Jim felt a stir of something like resentment at his heart. He found in the girl’s words a reflection of the beliefs of his native village, and perhaps justification of them, and saw her for the moment as the embodiment of the respectability, the piety, and all the narrowness of Chisley. The thought revived his habitual reserve. He meditated an escape, already regretting that he had permitted himself to drift into this extraordinary position.

In the Roaring Fifties - Contents    |     IV

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