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THE RECORD OF NICHOLAS FREYDON
[A novel by Alec John Dawson]
This etext prepared from the first edition published in 1914 by Constable and Company Ltd, London.
EDITOR'S PREFATORY NOTE
It would ill become any writer to adopt an apologetic tone in introducing the work of another pen than his own, and indeed I have no thought of apologia where Nicholas Freydon's writing is concerned. On the contrary, it is out of respect for my friend's quality as a writer that I am moved to a word of explanation here. It is this: there are circumstances, sufficiently indicated I think in the text of the book and my own footnote thereto, which tended to prevent my performance of those offices for my friend's work which are usually expected of one who is said to edit. It would be more fitting, I suppose, if a phrase were borrowed from the theatrical world, and this record of a man's life were said to be 'presented' rather than 'edited,' by me. I am advised to accept the editorial title in this connection, but it is the truth that the book has not been edited at all, in the ordinary acceptance of the term. A few purely verbal emendations have been made in it, but Nicholas Freydon's last piece of writing has never been revised, nor even arranged in deference to accepted canons of book-making. It is given here as it left the author's pen, designed, not for your eye or mine, but for that of its writer, to be weighed and considered by him. But that weighing and consideration it has not received.
So much I feel it incumbent upon me to say, as the avowed sponsor for the book, in order that praise and blame may be rightly apportioned. Touching the inherent value of this document, nothing whatever is due to me. Any criticism of its arrangement, or lack of arrangement, to be just, should be levelled at myself alone.
MANHOOD—ENGLAND: FIRST PERIOD
MANHOOD—ENGLAND: SECOND PERIOD
THE LAST STAGE
THE RECORD OF NICHOLAS FREYDON
Back there in London—how many leagues and aeons distant!—I threw down my pen and fled here to the ends of the earth, in pursuit of rest and self-comprehending peace of mind. Here I now take up the pen again and return in thought to London: that vast cockpit; still in pursuit of rest and self-comprehending peace of mind.
That seems wasteful and not very hopeful. But, to be honest—and if this final piece of pen-work be not honest to its core, it certainly will prove the very acme of futility—I must add the expression of opinion that most of the important actions of my life till now have had the self-same goal in view: peace of mind. The surprising thing is that, right up to this present, every one of my efforts has been backed by a substantial if varying amount of solid conviction; of belief that that particular action would bring the long-sought reward. I suppose I thought this in coming here, in fleeing from London. Nay, I know I did.
The latest, and I suppose the last, illusion bids me believe that if, using the literary habit of a lifetime, I can set down in ordered sequence the salient facts and events of that restless, struggling pilgrimage I call my life, there is a likelihood that, seeing the entire fabric in one piece, I may be able truly to understand it, and, understanding it, to rest content before it ends. The ironical habit makes me call it an illusion. In strict truth I listen to the call with some confidence; not, to be sure, with the flaming ardour which in bygone years has set me leaping into action in answer to such a call; yet with real hope.
It is none so easy a task, this exact charting out of so complex a matter as a man's life. And it may be that long practice of the writer's art but serves to heighten its difficulties. For example, since writing the sentence ending on that word 'hope,' I have covered two whole pages with writing which has now been converted into ashes among the logs upon my hearth. For the covering of those pages two volumes had been fingered and referred to, if you please, and my faulty memory drawn upon for yet a third quotation. So much for the habit of literary allusiveness, engrained into one by years of book-making, and yet more surely, I suspect, by labour for hire on the newspaper press.
But, though I have detected and removed these two pages of irrelevance, I foresee that unessential and therefore obscurantic matter will creep in. Well, when I come to weigh the completed record, I must allow for that; and, meanwhile, so far as time and my own limitations as selector permit, I will prune and clear away from the line of vision these weeds of errant fancy. For the record must of all things be honest and comprehensive; rather than shapely, effective, or literary. To be sure the pundits would say that this is to misuse and play with words; to perpetrate a contradiction in terms. Well, we shall see. Whatever the critics might say, your author by profession would understand me well enough when I say: 'Honest, rather than literary.'
How, to begin with, may I label and describe my present self? There, immediately, I am faced with one of the difficulties of this task. One can say of most men that they are this or that; of this class, order, sect, party, or type; and, behold them neatly docketed! But in all honesty I cannot say that I am of any special class, or that I 'belong' anywhere in particular. There is no circle in any community which is indefeasibly my own by right of birth and training. I am still a member of two London clubs, I believe. They were never more than hotels for me. I am probably what most folk call a gentleman; but how much does that signify in the twentieth century? Many simple people would likely call me a person of education, even of learning, belike, seeing a list of books under my name. A schoolman who examined me would be pardoned (by me, at all events) for calling me an ignoramus of no education whatever. For—and this I never reflected upon until the present moment—I could not for the life of me 'analyse' the simplest sentence, in the rather odd scholastic sense of that word. Inherited instinct and long practice make me aware, I believe, of an error in syntax, when I chance upon one. But I could only tell you that it was wrong, and never how or why. I know something of literature, but less of mathematics than I assume to be known by the modern ten-year-old schoolboy; something of three or four languages, but nothing of their grammar. I have met and talked with some of the most notable people of my time, but truly prefer cottage life before that of the greatest houses. And so, in a score of other ways, I feel it difficult informingly and justly to label myself.
But—let me have done with difficulties and definitions. My task shall be the setting forth of facts, out of which definitions must shape themselves. And, for a beginning, I must turn aside from my present self, pass by a number of dead selves, each differing in a thousand ways from every other, and bring my mind to bear for the moment upon that infinitely remote self: the child, Nicholas Freydon. It may be that curious and distant infant will help to explain the man.
The things I remember about my earliest infancy are not in the least romantic.
First, I think, come two pictures, both perfectly distinct, and both connected with domestic servants. The one is of a firelit interior, below street level: an immense kitchen, with shining copper vessels in it, an extremely hot and red fire, and a tall screen covered over with pictures. An enormously large woman in a blue and white print gown sits toasting herself before the fire; and a less immense female, in white print with sprays of pink flowers on it, is devoting herself to me. This last was Amelia; a cheerful, comely, buxom, and in the main kindly creature, as I remember her. In the kitchen was a well-scrubbed table of about three-quarters of a mile in length, and possessed of as many legs as a centipede, some of which could be moved to support flaps. (To put a measuring-tape over that table nowadays, or over other things in the kitchen, for that matter, might bring disappointment, I suppose.) These legs formed fascinating walls and boundaries for a series of romantic dwelling-places, shops, caves, and suchlike resorts, among which a small boy could wander at will, when lucky enough to be allowed to visit this warm apartment at all. The whole place was pervaded by an odour indescribably pleasing to my infantile nostrils, and compact of suggestions of heat acting upon clean print gowns, tea-cakes done to a turn, scrubbed wood, and hot soap-suds.
But the full ecstasy of a visit to this place was only attained when I was lifted upon the vast table by the warm and rosy Amelia, and allowed to leap therefrom into her extended arms; she rushing toward me, and both of us emitting either shrill or growling noises as the psychological moment of my leap was reached. At the time I used to think that springing from a trapeze, set in the dome of a great building, into a net beneath, must be the most ravishing of all joys; but I incline now to think that my more homely feat of leaping into Amelia's warm arms was, upon the whole, probably a pleasanter thing.
This memory is of something which I believe happened fairly frequently. My other most distinct recollection of what I imagine to have been the same period in history is of a visit, a Sunday afternoon visit, I think, paid with Amelia. I must have been of tender years, because, though during parts of the journey I travelled on my own two feet, I recollect occasional lapses into a perambulator, as it might be in the case of an elderly or invalid person who walks awhile along a stretch of level sward, and then takes his ease for a time in victoria or bath-chair.
I remember Amelia lifting me out from my carriage in the doorway of what I regarded as a very delightful small house, redolent of strange and exciting odours, some of which I connect with the subsequent gift of a slab of stuff that I ate with gusto as cake. My mature view is that it was cold bread-pudding of a peculiarly villainous clamminess. It is interesting to note that my delight in this fearsome dainty was based upon its most malevolent quality: the chill consistency of the stuff, which made it resemble the kind of leathery jelly that I have seen used to moisten the face of a rubber stamp withal.
In this house—it was probably in a slum, certainly in a mean street—one stepped direct from the pavement into a small kitchen, where an elderly man sat smoking a long clay pipe. A covered stairway rose mysteriously from one side of this apartment into the two bedrooms above. A door beside the stairway opened into a tiny scullery, from which light was pretty thoroughly excluded by the high, black wall which dripped and frowned no more than three feet away from its window. I have little doubt that this scullery was a pestilent place. At the time it appealed to my romantic sense as something rather attractive.
The elderly man in the kitchen was Amelia's father. That in itself naturally gave him distinction in my eyes. But, in addition, he was an old sailor, and, with a knife which was attached to a white lanyard, he could carve delightful boats (thoroughly seaworthy in a wash-hand basin) out of ordinary sticks of firewood. It is to be noted, by the way, a thing I never thought of till this moment, that these same sticks and bundles of firewood have a peculiarly distinctive smell of their own. It is the smell of a certain kind of grocer's shop whose proprietor, for some esoteric reason, calls himself an 'Italian warehouse-man.' In later life I occasionally visited such a shop, between Fleet Street and the river, when I had rooms in that locality.
Boat-building figured largely in that visit to Amelia's parents. (The girl had a mother; large, flaccid, and, on this occasion, partly dissolved in tears.) But the episode immediately preceding our departure is what overshadowed everything else for me that day, and for several subsequent nights. Amelia and the tearful mother took me up the dark little stairway, and introduced me to Death. They showed me Amelia's sister, Jinny, who died (of consumption, I believe) on the day before our visit. I still can see the alabaster white face, with its pronounced vein-markings; the straight, thin form, outlined beneath a sheet, in that tiny, low-ceiled, airless garret. What a picture to place before an infant on a sunny Sunday afternoon! It might be supposed that I had asked to see it, for I remember Amelia saying, as one about to give a child a treat:
'Now, mind, Master Nicholas, you're to be a very good boy, and you're not to say a word about it to any one.'
But, no, I do not think I can have desired the experience, for to this day I cherish a lively recollection of the agony of sick horror which swam over me when, in obedience to instructions given, I suffered my lips to touch the marble-like face of the dead girl.
How strange is that unquestioning obedience of childhood! Recognition of it might well give pause to careless instructors of youth. The kiss meant torture to me, in anticipation and in fact. But I was bidden, and never dreamed of refusing to obey. No doubt, there was also at work in me some dim sort of infantile delicacy. This was an occasion upon which a gentleman could have no choice....
Ah, well, I believe Amelia was a dear good soul, and I am sure I hope she married well, and lived happily ever after. I have no recollection whatever of how or when she drifted out of my life. But the visit to Jinny's deathbed, and the exciting leaps from the immeasurably long kitchen table into Amelia's print-clad arms, are things which stand out rather more clearly in my recollection than many of the events of, say, twenty years later.
How is it that my earliest recollections should centre about folk no nearer or dearer to me than domestic servants? I know that my mother died within three months of my birth. There had to be, and was, another woman in my life before Amelia; but I have no memories of her. She was an aunt, an unmarried sister of my mother's; but I believe my father quarrelled with her before I began to 'take notice' very much; and then came Amelia.
The large underground kitchen really was fairly big. I had a look at it no more than a dozen years ago. The house, too, was and is a not unpleasing one, situated within a stone's throw of Russell Square, Bloomsbury. Its spaces are ample, its fittings solidly good, and its area less subterranean than many. Near by is a select livery stable and mews of sub-rural aspect, with Virginia creeper climbing over a horse's head in stucco. Amelia shared with me a night nursery and a nursery-living room in this house, the latter overlooking the mews, through the curving iron rails of a tiny balcony. Below us my father occupied a small bedroom and a large sitting-room, the latter being the 'first floor front.'
At this time, and indeed during all the period of my first English memories—say, eight years—my father was engaged in journalistic work. I know now that he had been called to the bar, a member of Lincoln's Inn; but I do not know that he ever had a brief. He gave some years, I believe, to coaching and tutoring. I remember seeing, later in my boyhood, a tattered yellow prospectus which showed that he once delivered certain lectures on such subjects as 'Mediaeval English Poetry.' In my time I gather that my father called no man master or employer, but was rather the slave of a number of autocrats in Fleet Street. 'The office,' as between Amelia and myself, may have meant all Fleet Street. But my impression now is that it meant the building then occupied by the ——. (Here figures the name of one of London's oldest morning newspapers.—Ed.) And, it may be, the —— Club; for I have reason to believe that my father did much of his work at his club. I have even talked there with one member at least who recollected this fact.
But the memory of my father as he was in this early period is curiously vague. It would seem that he produced no very clear impression on my mind then. Our meetings were not very frequent, I think. As I chiefly recall them, they occurred in the wide but rather dark entrance hall, and were accompanied by conversation confined to Amelia and my father. At such times he would be engaged in polishing his hat, sometimes with a velvet pad, and sometimes on his coat-sleeve. I used to hear from him remarks like these:
'Well, keep him out of doors as much as possible, so long as it doesn't rain. Eh? Oh, well, you'd better buy another. How much will it be? I will send up word if I am back before the boy's bed-time.'
And then he might turn to me, after putting on his hat, and absently pull one of my ears, or stroke my nose or forehead. His hands were very slender, warm, and pleasantly odorous of soap and tobacco. 'Be a good man,' he would say. And there the interview ended. He never said: 'Be a good child'; always 'a good man'; and sometimes he would repeat it, in a gravely preoccupied way.
Once, and, so far as I remember, only once, we met him out-of-doors; in the park, it was, and he took us both to the Zoological Gardens, and gave us tea there. (Yellowish cake with white sugar icing over it has ever since suggested to me the pungent smell of monkey-houses and lions' cages.) The meeting was purely accidental, I believe.
It must have been in about my ninth year, I fancy, that I began really to know something of my father, as a man, rather than as a sort of supernatural, hat-polishing, He-who-must-be-obeyed. We had a small house of our own then, in Putney; and the occasion of our first coming together as fellow-humans was a shared walk across Wimbledon Common, and into Richmond Park by the Robin Hood Gate. The period was the 'sixties of last century, and I had just begun my attendance each day at a local 'Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen.' To us, in the Academy, my father descended as from Olympus, while the afternoon was yet young, and carried me off before the envious eyes of my fellow sufferers and what I felt to be the grudging gaze of the usher, who had already twice since dinner-time severely pulled my ears, because of some confusion that existed in my mind between Alfred and his burnt cakes and Canute and his wet feet. (As I understood it, Canute sat on the beach upon one of those minute camp-stools which mothers and nurses used at the seaside before the luxurious era of canopied hammock chairs.)
In my devious childish fashion, I presently gathered that there had been momentous doings in London town that day, and that in the upshot my father had terminated his connection with the famous newspaper from which the bulk of his earnings had been drawn for some years. For a little while I fancied this must be almost as delightful for him as my own unexpected escape from the Academy that afternoon had been for me. But, gradually, my embryo intelligence rejected this theory, and I became possessed of a sense of grave happenings, almost, it might be, of catastrophe. Quite certainly, my father had never before talked to me as he did that summer afternoon in Richmond Park. His vein was, for him, somewhat declamatory, and his unusual gestures impressed me hugely. It is likely that at times he forgot my presence, or ceased, at all events, to remember that his companion was his child. His massive, silver-headed malacca cane did great execution among the bracken, I remember.
(I had been rather pleased for my school-mates to have had an opportunity of observing this stick, and had regretted the absence of my father's usual hat, equal in refulgence to the cane. Evidently, he had called at the house and changed his head-gear before walking up to the Academy, for he now wore the soft black hat which he called his 'wideawake.')
That he was occasionally conscious of me his monologue proved, for it included such swift, jerky sentences as:
'Remember that, my son. Have nothing to do with this accursed trade of ink-spilling. Literary work! God save the mark!' (I wondered what particular ink 'mark' this referred to.) 'The purse-proud wretches think they buy your soul with their starveling cheques. Ten years' use of my brain; ten years wasted in slavish pot-boiling for them; and then—then, this!'
'This,' I imagine, was dismissal; accepted resignation, say. I gathered that my father had been free to do his work where he chose; that he had used the newspaper office only as a place in which to consult with his editor before writing; and that now some new broom in the office was changing all that; that my father had been bidden to attend a certain desk during stated hours to perform routine work each day; that he had protested, refused, and closed his connection with the journal, after a heated interview with some managerial bashaw.
In the light of all I now know, I apprehend that my father had just been brought into contact with the first stirrings of those radical changes which revolutionised the London world of literature and journalism during the last three decades of the nineteenth century. The Board School had not quite arrived, but the social revolution was at hand; and, there among the bracken in Richmond Park, my father with his malacca cane was defying the tide—like my friend of the camp-stool: Canute. Remembered phrases like: 'Underbred little clerk!'; 'His place is the counting-house, and —— [the editor] should have known better than to leave us at the mercy of this impudent cad,' convince me that my father's wrath was in great part directed less against an individual than a social movement or tendency.
Much that my father said that afternoon would probably have a ridiculous seeming in this twentieth century. Compulsory education and the aesthetic movement, not to mention the Labour Party, Tory Democrats, and the Halfpenny Press, were as yet undiscovered delights when my father talked to me in Richmond Park. A young man of to-day, reading or listening to such words, would almost certainly be misled by them regarding the character and position of the speaker. My father was no scion of a noble house, but the only son of a decayed merchant. His attitude of mind and disposition, however, were naturally somewhat aristocratic, I think. Also, as I have said, our talk was in the 'sixties. He was sensitive, very proud, inclined, perhaps, to scornfulness, certainly to fastidiousness, and one who seldom suffered fools either gladly or with much show of tolerance. It was a somewhat unfortunate temperament, probably, for a man situated as he was, possessed of no private means and dependent entirely upon his earnings. In my mother, I believe he had married a lady of somewhat higher social standing than his own, who never was reconciled to the comparatively narrow and straitened circumstances of her brief wifehood.
'The people who have to do with newspapers are the serfs and the prostitutes of literature. It was not always so, but I've felt it coming for some time now. It is the growing dominion of the City, of commerce, of their boasted democracy. The People's Will! Disgusting rubbish! How the deuce should these office-bred hucksters know what is best? But, I tell you, my boy, that it is they who are becoming the masters. There is no more room in journalism for a gentleman; certainly not for literary men and people of culture. They think it will pay them better to run their wretched sheets for the proletariat. We shall see. Oh, I am better out of it, of course. I see that clearly; and I am thankful to be clear of their drudgery.' (My listening mind brightened.) 'But yet—there's your education to be thought of. Expenses are—And, of course—H'm!' (Clouds shadowed my outlook once more.) 'This pitiful anxiety to cling to the safety of a salary is humiliating—unworthy of one's manhood. Good heavens! why was I born, not one of them, and yet dependent on the caprices of such people?'
It may be filial partiality, but something makes me feel genuinely sorry for my father, as I look back upon that outpouring of his in Richmond Park. And that was in the 'sixties. I wonder how the twentieth-century journalism would have struck him. The later subtleties of unadmitted advertising, the headline, the skittishly impressionistic descriptive masterpieces of 'our special representative,' and the halfpenny newspapers, were all unthought-of boons, then. And as for the advancing democracy of his prophecies, why, there were quite real sumptuary laws of a sort still holding sway in the 'sixties, and well on into the 'eighties, for that matter!
We walked home from the Roehampton Gate, and in some respects I was no longer quite a child when I climbed into bed that night.
In my eyes, at all events, there was a kind of a partnership between my father and myself from this time onward. Before, there had been three groups in my scheme of things: upon the one hand, Amelia (or her successor) and myself, with, latterly, some of the people of the Putney Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen; in another and quite separate compartment, my father; and, finally, the rest of the world. Gradually, now, I came to see things rather in this wise: upon the one hand, my father and myself, with, perhaps, a few other folk as satellites; and, on the other hand, the rest of the world.
And at this early stage I began to regard the world—every one outside our own small camp—in an antagonistic light, as a hostile force, as the enemy. Life was a battle in which the odds were fearfully uneven; for it was my father and myself against the world. Needless to say, I did not put the matter to myself in those words; but at this precise period I am well assured that I acquired this attitude of mind. It dated from the admittance into partnership with my father, which was signalised by the walk and talk among the bracken in Richmond Park.
I ought to say that I had always had a great admiration for my father. He seemed to me clearly superior in a thousand ways to other men. But never before the Richmond episode had there been personal sympathy, nor yet any loyal feeling of fellowship, mingled with this admiration.
I remember very distinctly the pride I felt in my father's personal appearance. He was not a dandy, I think; but there was a certain quiet nicety and delicacy about his dress and manner which impressed me greatly. The hair about his ears and temples was silvery grey; one of the marks of his superiority, in my eyes. He always raised his hat in leaving a shop in which a woman served; his manner of accepting or tendering an apology among strangers was very grand indeed. In saluting men in the street, he had a spacious way of raising his malacca stick which, to this day, would charm me, were it possible to see such a gesture in these rushing times. The photograph before me as I write proves that my father was a handsome man, but it does not show the air of distinction which I am assured was his. And, let me record here the fact that, whatever might be thought of the wisdom or otherwise of his views or actions, I never once knew him to be guilty of an act of vulgar discourtesy, nor of anything remotely resembling meanness.
In these days it is safe to say that the very poorest toiler's child has more of schooling than I had, and, doubtless, a superior sort of schooling. I spent rather less than a year and a half at the Putney Academy, and that was the beginning and the end of my schooling. Before being introduced to the Academy, I was a fairly keen reader; and that remained. At the Academy I was obliged to write in a copy-book, and to commit to memory sundry valueless dates. There may have been other acquisitions (irrespective of ear-tweakings and various cuts from a vicious little cane), but I have no recollection of them; and, to this day, the simplest exercises of everyday figuring baffle me the moment I take a pencil in my hand. If I cannot arrive at solution 'in my head' I am done, and many a minor monetary loss have I suffered in consequence.
I trust I am justified in believing that to-day there are no such schools left in England as that Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen, in Putney. As a training establishment it was more suitable, I think, for the sons of parrots or rabbits. I never even learned to handle a cricket bat or ball there. Neither, I think, did any of my contemporaries in that futile place. The headmaster and proprietor was a harassed and disappointed man, who exhausted whatever energies he possessed in interviewing parents and keeping up appearances. His one underpaid usher was a young man of whom I remember little, beyond his habit of pulling my ears in class, and the astoundingly rich crop of pimples on his face, which he seemed to be always cultivating with applications of cotton-wool, plaster, and nasty stuff from a flat white jar. His mind, I verily believe, was as innocent of thought as a cabbage. When sent to play outdoor games with us, and instruct us in them, he always reclined on the grass, or sat on a gate, reading the Family Herald, or a journal in whose title the word 'Society' figured; except on those rare occasions when his employer came our way for a few moments. Then, cramming his book into his pocket, the poor pimply chap would plunge half hysterically into our moody ranks (forgetful probably of what we were supposed to be playing) with muttered cries of: 'Now then, boys! Put your heart into it!' and the like. 'Put your heart into it!' indeed! Poor fellow; he probably was paid something less than a farm labourer's wage, and earned considerably less than that.
No, any education which I received in boyhood must have come to me from my father; and that entirely without any set form of instruction, but merely from listening to his talk, and asking him questions. Also, the books I read were his property; and I do not recall any trash among them. It was the easiest thing in the world to evade the 'home-work' set me by the usher, and I consistently did so. As a rule, he was none the wiser, and when he did detect me, the results rarely went beyond perfunctory ear-pulling; a cheap price for free evenings, I thought. The usher was frankly sick of us all, and of his employment, too; and I do not wonder at it, seeing that he was no more equipped for his work than for administering a state. He never had been trained to discharge any function in life whatever. How then could he be expected to know how to train us?
Withal, I somehow did acquire a little knowledge, and the rudiments of some definite tastes and inclinations, during this period. Recently, in London, I have once or twice endeavoured to probe the minds of County Council schoolboys of a similar age, with a view to comparing the sum of their knowledge with my own in those Putney days. And, curious though it seems, it does certainly appear to me that the comparison was never to the advantage of the modern boy; though I am assured he must enjoy the benefits of some kind of thought-out educational system. I certainly did not. These things partake of the nature of mysteries.
I suppose the successive servant maids who chiefly controlled my early childhood must have been more ignorant than any member of their class in post-Board School days. Yet it seems beyond question clear to me that such beginnings of a mind as I possessed at the age of ten, such mental tendencies as I was beginning to show, were at all events more hopeful, more rational, better worth having, than those I have been able to discern in the twentieth-century London office boy, fresh from his palatial County Council School. I may be quite wrong, of course, but that is how it appears to me—despite all the uplifting influences of halfpenny newspapers, and picture theatres, and the forward march of democracy.
Then there is that notable point, the question of speech; the vehicle of mental expression and thought transference. Between the ages of one year and nine years, society for me was confined almost exclusively to servant girls. From their lips it was that I acquired the faculty of speech. Yet I am certain that the boy who walked in Richmond Park with my father in the 'sixties spoke in his dialect, and not in that of Cockney nursemaids. Why was that? If my father ever corrected my speech it was upon very rare occasions. I remember them perfectly. They were not such corrections as would very materially affect a lad's accent or choice of words.
Having read a good deal more than I had conversed, I was mentally familiar with certain words which I never had happened to have heard pronounced. One instance I recall. (It was toward the end of my Academy period.) I had occasion to read aloud some passage to my father, and it included the word 'inevitable,' which in my innocence I pronounced with the accent on the third syllable. Up went my father's eyebrows. 'Inevitable,' he mimicked, with playful scorn. And that was all. He offered no correction. I recall that I was covered in rosy confusion, and, guessing rightly, by some happy chance (or unconscious recollection) hit upon the conventional pronunciation, never to forget it. But, judged by any scholastic standard I ever heard expounded, there is no doubt about it, I was, and for that matter am, a veritable ignoramus.
During all the year which followed the beginning of intimacy between us, my impression is that my father was increasingly worried and depressed. Children have a shrewder consciousness of these things than many of their elders suppose; and I was well aware that things were not going well with my father. I saw more of him, and missed no opportunities of obtaining his companionship. He, for his part, saw a good deal less of other people, I fancy, and lost no opportunity of avoiding intercourse with his contemporaries. He brooded a great deal; and was very fitful in his reading, writing, and correspondence. I began to hear upon his lips significant if vague expressions of his desire to 'Get away from all this'; to 'Get out of this wretched scramble'; to 'Find a way out of it all.'
And then with bewildering suddenness came the first big event of my career; the event which, I suppose, was chiefly responsible also for its latest episode.
No doubt one reason why our migration to Australia seemed so surprisingly sudden a step to me was that the preliminaries were arranged without my knowledge. Apart from this, I believe the step was swiftly taken.
My father had no wife or family to consider. I do not think there was a single relative left, beside myself, with whom he had maintained intercourse of any kind. Our household effects were all sold as they stood in the house, to a singularly urbane and gentlemanly old dealer in such things, a Mr. Fennel, whose stock phrase: 'Pray don't put yourself about on my account, sir, I beg,' seemed to me to form his reply to every remark of my father's. And thus, momentous though the hegira might be, and was, to us, I suppose it did not call for any very serious amount of detailed preparation, once my father had made his decision.
Looking back upon it now, in the light of some knowledge of the subject, and of old lands and new, it seems to me open to question whether, in all the moving story of British oversea adventuring, there is an instance of any migration more curious than ours, or of any person emigrating who was less suited for the venture than my father. In the matter of our baggage and personal effects, now, the one thing to which my father devoted serious care was something which probably would not figure at all in any official list of articles required for an emigrant's kit: his books.
His library consisted of some three thousand volumes, the gleanings of a quarter of a century when books were neither so numerous nor so cheap as they are to-day. From these he set himself the maddening task of selecting one hundred volumes to be taken with us. The rest were to be sold. The whole of our preparations are dominated in the retrospect for me, by my father's absorption in the task of sifting and re-sifting his books. Acting under his instructions, I myself handled each one of the three thousand and odd volumes a good many times. Eventually, we took six hundred and seventy-three volumes with us, of which more than fifty were repurchased, at a notable advance, of course, upon the price he paid for them, from the dealer who bought the remainder.
This was my first insight into the subtleties of trade, and I noted with loyal anger, in my father's interest, how contemptuously the dealer belittled our books in buying them, and how eloquently he dilated upon their special values in selling back to us those my father found he could not spare. In every case these volumes were rare and hard to come by, greatly in demand, 'the pick of the basket,' and so forth. Well, I suppose that is commerce. At the time it seemed to me amply to justify all my father's lofty scorn and hatred for everything in any way connected with business.
If only the book-dealer could have adopted Mr. Fennel's praiseworthy attitude, I thought: 'Pray don't put yourself about, sir, on my account, I beg.' But then, Mr. Fennel, I make no doubt, was heading straight for bankruptcy. I have sought his name in vain among Putney's modern tradesfolk. Whereas, Mr. Siemens, the gentleman who bought our library, apart from his various thriving establishments in London, now cherishes his declining years, I believe, in a villa in the Italian Riviera, and a manor house in Hampshire. Though young, when I met him in Putney, he evidently had the root of the matter in him, from a commercial point of view, and was possibly even a little in advance of his time in the matter of business ability. He drove a very smart horse, I remember, was dressed smartly, and had a smart way of saying that business was business. Yes, I dare say Mr. Siemens was more a man of his time than my poor father.
It was on the afternoon of May 2, 1870, the day after my tenth birthday, that we sailed from Gravesend for Sydney, in the full-rigged clipper ship Ariadne, of London, with one hundred and forty-seven other emigrants and eighteen first-class passengers. It was, I suppose, a part of my father's enthusiastically desperate state of mind at this time that we were booked as steerage passengers. We were to lay aside finally all the effete uses of sophisticated life. We were emigrants, bent upon carving a home for ourselves out of the virgin wilderness. Naturally, we were to travel in the steerage. And, indeed, I have good reason to suppose that my father's supply of money must have been pretty low at the time. But we occupied a first-class railway carriage on the journey down to Gravesend; and I know our porter received a bright half-crown for his services to us, for my father's hands were occupied, and the coin was passed to me for bestowal.
Long before the tug left us, we sat down to our first meal on board; perhaps a hundred of us together. A weary poor woman with two babies was on my left, and a partly intoxicated man of the coal-heaving sort (very likely a Cabinet Minister in Australia to-day) on my father's right. This simple soul made the mistake of endeavouring to establish an affectionate friendship with my father, who was sufficiently resentful of the man's mere proximity, and received his would-be genial advances with the most freezing politeness. But the event which precipitated a crisis was the coal-heaver's removal of his knife from his mouth—the dexterity with which his kind can manipulate these lethal weapons, even when partly intoxicated, is little less than miraculous—after the safe discharge there of some succulent morsel from his plate, to plunge it direct into the contents of the butter-dish before my father.
Black wrath descended upon my father's face as he rose from the table, and drew me up beside him. 'Insufferable!' he muttered, as we left that curious place for the first and last time. I see it now with its long, narrow, uncovered tables, stretching between clammy iron stanchions, and supported by iron legs fitting into sockets in the deck. It was lighted by hanging lanterns which threw queer, moving shadows in all directions, and stank consumedly.
'Are we hogs that we should be given our swill in such a sty?' asked my father, explosively, of some subordinate member of the crew whom we met as we reached the open deck.
'I dunno, matey,' replied this innocent. 'Feelin' sickish, are ye? You've started too soon.'
'Yes, I'm feeling pretty sick,' said my father, as the glimmer of the humorous side of it all touched his mind. 'Look here, my man,' he continued, 'here's half a crown for you. I want to see the purser of this ship. Just show me where I can find him, like a good fellow, will you?'
We found the purser in that condition of harassment which appears to belong, like its uniform, to his post, when a ship is clearing the land. He was inclined at first to adopt a pretty short way with us. He really didn't know what emigrants wanted these days. Did they think a ship's steerage was a ho-tel? And so forth.
But my father was on his mettle now, and handled his man with considerable skill and suavity. There was no second-class accommodation on the ship. But in the end we were taken into the first-class ranks, at a substantial reduction from the full first-class fares, on the understanding that we contented ourselves with a somewhat gloomy little single-berth cabin which no one else wanted. Here a makeshift bed was presently arranged for me, and within the hour we emigrants from the steerage had become first-class passengers. The translation brought such obvious and real relief to my father that my own spirits rose instantly; I began to take great interest in our surroundings, and, from that moment, entirely forgot those prophetic internal twinges, those stomachic forebodings which, in the 'other place,' as politicians say, had begun to turn my thoughts toward the harrowing tales I had heard of sea-sickness.
My father, poor man, was not so fortunate. He began before long to pay a heavy price in bodily affliction for all the stress and excitement of the past few days. For a full fortnight the most virulent type of sea-sickness had him in its horrid grip. I have since seen many other folk in evil case from similar causes, but none so vitally affected by the complaint as my father was, and never one who bore it with more patient courtesy than he did. Not in the cruellest paroxysm did he lose either his self-respect, or his consideration for me, and for others. The mere mention of this fell complaint excites mirth in the minds of the majority; but rarely can a man or woman be found whose self-control is proof against its attacks; and I take pleasure in remembering my father's admirable demeanour throughout his ordeal. In the steerage he had hardly survived it, I think. Here, with decent privacy, no single complaint passed his lips; and there was not a day, hardly an hour, I believe, in which he ceased to take thought for his small son's comfort and wellbeing. His courtesy was no skin-deep pose with my father. No doubt we are all much cleverer and more enlightened nowadays, but—however, that is one of the lines of thought which it is quite unnecessary for me to pursue here.
I was quite absurdly proud of my father, I remember, when, at length, he made his first appearance on the poop, leaning on my shoulder, his own shoulders covered by the soft rug we called the 'Hobson rug,' because, years before, a friend of that name had bequeathed it to us, after a visit to the house near Russell Square. In all the time that came afterwards, I am not sure that my father's constitution ever fully regained the tone it lost during our first fortnight aboard the Ariadne. But, if his health had suffered a set-back, his manner had not; that distinction of bearing in him which always impressed me, in which I took such pride, seemed to me now more than ever marked.
Child though I was, I am assured that this characteristic of my father's had a very real existence, and was not at all the creation of my boyish fancy. From my very earliest days I had heard it commented upon by landladies and servants, and, too, in remarks casually overheard from neighbours and strangers. Now, among our fellow-passengers on board the Ariadne, I heard many similar comments.
Looking back from this distance I find it somewhat puzzling that in my father's personality there should have been combined so much of real charm, dignity, and distinction, with so marked a distaste for the society of his fellows. Here was a man who seemed able always to inspire interest and admiration when he did go among his equals (or those not his equals, for that matter), who yet preferred wherever possible to avoid every form of social intercourse. By nature he seemed peculiarly fitted to make his mark in society; by inclination and habit, more especially in later life, it would seem he shunned society as the plague itself. Withal, there was not the faintest suggestion of moroseness about him, and when circumstances did lead him into converse with others he always conveyed an impression of pleased interest. This product of his exceptional courtesy and considerateness must have puzzled many people, taken in conjunction with his invariable avoidance of intercourse wherever that could be managed with politeness. Far more than any monetary or more practical consideration, it was, I am certain, this desire of my father's to get away from people which had led to our migration.
'People interrupt one so horribly,' was a remark he frequently made to me.
Folk whose experience of sea travel is confined to the passengers' quarters on board modern steamships of high tonnage can have but a shadowy conception of what a three months' passage round the Cape means, when it is made in a 1200 ton sailing vessel. I can pretend to no technical knowledge of ships and seafaring; but it is always with something of condescension in my mental attitude that I set foot on board a steamship, or hear praise of one of the palatial modern 'smoke-stacks.' It was thus I remember that the Ariadne's seamen spoke of steamships.
I suppose room could almost be found for the Ariadne in the saloons of some of the twentieth-century Atlantic greyhounds. But I will wager that the whole fleet of them could not show a tithe of her grace and spirited beauty in a sea-way. And, be it noted, they would not be so extravagantly far ahead of the Ariadne even in point of speed, say, between the Cape and Australia, when, in running her easting down with a living gale on her quarter, she spurned the foam from her streaming sides to the tune of a steady fourteen to fifteen knots in an hour; 'snoring along,' as seamen say, with all her cordage taut as harp-strings, and her clouds of canvas soaring heavenward tier on tier, strained to the extreme limit of the fabric's endurance.
From talk with my father, I knew the Ariadne of mythology, and so the sight of the patent log-line trailing in the creamy turmoil of our wake used always to suggest imaginings to me, as I leaned gazing over our poop rail, of a modern Theseus being rescued by this line of ours from the labyrinthine caverns of some submarine Minotaur.
Aye, she was a brave ship, and these were brave days of continuously stirring interest to the lad fresh from Putney and its Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen; or, as I should probably say, from one of its academies. I do not recall that life itself, the great spectacle, had at this period any interest for me, as such. My musings had not carried me so far. But the things and people about me, the play of the elements, and the unceasing and ever-varying activities of the ship's working, appealed to me as his love to a lover, filling my every hour with waiting claims, each to my ardour more instant and peremptory than its fellow.
Rhapsodies have been penned about the simple candour of children, the unmeasured frankness of boys. These qualities were not, I think, conspicuous in me. At least, I recall a considerable amount of play-acting in my life on board the Ariadne, and, I think, in even earlier phases. As a boy, it seems to me, I had a very keen appetite for affection. I was somewhat emotional and sentimental, and always interested in producing an impression upon the minds of those about me. Without reaching the point of seeing life as a spectacle, I believe my own small personality presented a spectacle of which I was pretty generally and interestedly conscious. There was a good deal of drama for me, in my own insignificant progress. I often watched myself, and strove to gauge the impression I produced on others, and to mould and shape this to my fancy. There may possibly be something unpleasant, even unnatural about this, in so young a boy. I do not know, but I am sure it is true; and so it is rightly set down here.
There was a Mrs. Armstrong among our passengers, who was accompanied by two daughters; a bonny, romping girl of sixteen, in whom I felt little or no interest, and a serious young woman of two or three-and-twenty, with whom I fell in love in an absurdly solemn fashion. Miss Armstrong had a great deal of shining fair hair, a good figure, and pleasing dark blue eyes. That is as far as memory carries me regarding her appearance. She rather took me up, as she might have taken up crewel work, whatever that may be, or district visiting, or what not. No doubt she was among the majority in whom my father inspired interest. She talked to me in an exemplary way, and held up before me, as I remember it, a sort of blend of little Lord Fauntleroy and the dreadful child in East Lynne, as an ideal to strive after.
She assuredly meant most kindly by me, but the influence was not, perhaps, very wholesome; or, it may be, I twisted and perverted it to ill uses. At least, I remember devious ways in which I sought to earn her admiration, and other yet more devious ways in which I schemed to win petting from her. I actually used to invent small offences and weave circumstantial romances about pretended wrong-doings, in order to have the pleasure of confessing, with mock shame, and getting absolution, along with caresses and sentimental promises of help to do better in future. In retrospect it seems I was a somewhat horrid little chap in this. I certainly adored Miss Armstrong; though in an entirely different way from the manner of my subsequent passion for little black-haired Nelly Fane. The Fane family consisted of the father, mother, one boy, and two girls: Nelly, and her sister Marion, both charming children, the first very dark, the other fair. Nelly was a year older than I, Marion two years younger. The boy, Tom, was within a month or two of my own age.
It might be that I was wearying a little of the solemn sentimentality of my attachment to Miss Armstrong; possibly the pose I thought needful for holding this young lady's regard withal proved exhausting after a time. At all events, I remember neglecting her shamefully in equatorial latitudes, when the Ariadne was creeping along her zig-zag course through the Doldrums. For me this period, fascinating in scores of other ways, belongs to Nelly Fane, with her long black curls, biscuit-coloured legs and arms, and large, melting dark eyes. At the time the thought of being separated from this imperious little beauty meant for me an abomination of desolation too dreadful to be contemplated. But, looking back upon the circumstances of my suit, I think it likely my heart had never been captivated but for jealousy, and my trick of seeing myself as the first figure in an illustrated romance.
There was another boy on board—I remember only his Christian name: Fred—who, in addition to being a year older than myself, had the huge advantage of being an experienced traveller. He was an Australian, and had been on a visit with his parents to the Mother-country. At a quite early stage in our passage, he won my cordial dislike by means of his old traveller's airs, and—far more unforgiveable—the fact that he had the temerity to refer to my father, in my hearing, as 'The old chap who can't get his sea-legs.' I fear I never should have forgiven him for that.
In addition, as we youngsters played together about the decks, this Fred used to arrogate to himself always the position of leader and director. He knew the proper names of many things of which the rest of us were ignorant, and, where his knowledge did not carry him, I was assured his conceit and hardihood did. To such ears as Nelly Fane's, for instance, 'Jib-boom,' 'Fore topmast-staysail,' must have an admirably knowledgeable note about them, I thought, even if ever so wrongly used. My first attack upon Fred consisted in convicting him of some such swaggering misuse of a nautical term to the which, as luck had it, I had given careful study on the fo'c'sle-head during the previous evening's second dog-watch, when my friends among the crew were taking their leisure. He bore no malice, I think; in any case, his self-esteem was a very hardy growth, and little liable to suffer from any minor check.
We never came to blows, the Australian and myself, which was probably as well for me, since I make no doubt the lad could have trounced me soundly, for he was disgustingly wiry and long of limb. That was how I saw his physical advantages. But, apart from this matter of physical superiority, he was no match for me. In the subtler qualities of intrigue I was his master; and he, never probably having observed himself as a hero of romance, had to yield to my proficiency in the art of producing a desired impression. It was in his capacity as an old campaigner, a knowing dog, and a seasoned salt, that he had carried Nelly Fane's heart by storm, and established himself an easy first in her regard. And seeing this it was, I believe, which first weakened my devotion to the fair Miss Armstrong, by turning my attention to Nelly Fane.
I did not really deserve to win Nelly, my suit at first being based upon foundations so unworthy. But the pursuit of her stirred me deeply; and in the end—say, in a couple of days—I was her very humble and devoted slave. She really was an attractive child, I fancy, in her wilful, imperious way. And, Cupid, how I did adore her by the time I had driven Master Fred from the field! Even my father suffered a temporary eclipse in my regard during the first white-hot fervour of my devotion to Nelly. I lied for her, in word and deed; I stole for her—from the cabin pantry—and I am sure I risked life and limb for her a dozen times, in my furious emulation of any achievement of Fred's, in my instant adoption of any suggestion of Nelly's, however mischievous. And how many of us could truthfully say as much of their enthusiasm in any mature love affair? How many grown men would deliberately risk life to win the passing approval of a mistress?
For example, I recall two typical episodes. Neither had been remarkable, perhaps, for a boy devoid of fear or imagination; but I was one shrewdly influenced by both qualities. There was a roomy cabin under the Ariadne's starboard counter, which served the Fane family as a sort of sitting-room or day nursery. It had two circular port-holes, brass-rimmed, of fairly generous proportions. Under the spur of verbal taunts from Fred, and passive challenges from Nelly's dark eyes, I positively succeeded in wriggling my entire body out through one of those port-holes, feet first, until I hung by my hands outside, my feet almost touching the water-line. And then it seemed I could not win my way back.
Nelly, moved to tears of real grief now, was for seeking the aid of grown-ups. I wasted precious breath in adjuring her as she loved me to keep silence. For my part death seemed imminent and certain. But I pictured Fred's grinning commiseration should our elders rescue me, and—I held on. By slow degrees I got one arm and shoulder back into the cabin, pausing there to rest. From that moment I was safe; but I was too cunning to let the fact appear. My reward began then, and most voluptuously I savoured it. I had Mistress Nelly on her biscuit-coloured knees to me before I finally reached the cabin floor on my hands, my toes still clinging to the port-hole. Poor Fred could not possibly equal this feat. His girth would not have permitted it.
Again, there was the blazing tropical afternoon, in dead calm, when I established a new record by touching the ship's prow under water. It was siesta time for passengers. The watch on deck was assembled right aft, scraping bright-work. Pitch was bubbling in the deck seams, and every one was drowsy, excepting Nelly, Marion, Tom, Fred, and myself. We were plotting mischief in the shadow of the Ariadne's anchors, right in the eyes of the ship. I forget the immediate cause of this piece of foolhardiness, but I remember Fred's hated fluency about 'dolphin-strikers,' 'martingales,' and what not; and, finally, my own assertion that I would touch the ship's forefoot, where we saw it gleaming below the glassy surface of the water, and Fred's mocking reply that I jolly well dared do no such a thing. Nelly's provocative eyes were in the background, of course.
Three several times I tried and failed, swinging perilously at a rope's end below the dolphin-striker. And then the Ariadne, with one of those unaccountable movements which a ship will make at times in the flattest of calms, brought me victory, and the narrowest escape from extinction in one and the same moment. I swung lower than before, and the ship ducked suddenly. I not only touched her bows below the water-line, but had all the breath knocked out of me by them, and was soused under water myself, as thoroughly as a Brighton bathing woman could have done the trick for me. To this day I remember the breathless, straining agony of the ascent, when my clothes and myself seemed heavier than lead, and the ship's deck miles above me. My clothes—a jersey and flannel knickerbockers—dried quickly in the scorching sun, and no grown-up ever knew of the escapade, I think. But, the peril of it, in a shark-infested sea!
No doubt these feats helped me to the subjugation of Nelly. Yet, after all, in sheer physical prowess, I could not really rival Fred, who stood a full head taller than I did. But I had a deal more of finesse than he had, made very much better use of my opportunities, and was a far more practised poseur. Fred was well supplied with self-esteem—a most valuable qualification in love-making—but he lacked the introspectively seeing eye. He might compel admiration, in his rude fashion. He could never force a tear or steal a sigh.
Fred—Fred without a surname, I wonder what has been your lot in life, and where you air your prosperity to-day! For, prosperous I feel certain you are. And, who knows? Nelly may be Mrs. Fred to-day, for aught I can tell. When all is said and done, you all of you had more in common, one with another, and each with all, than I had with any of you!
And that reminds me of a trifle overlooked. During all my association with these my contemporaries on board the Ariadne, but with special keenness in the beginning, I was conscious of something outside my own experience, which they all shared. At that time it was to me just a something which they had and I had not; a quality I could not define. Looking back upon it I see clearly that the thing was in part fundamental, a flaw in my temperament; and, in part, the family sense. They all knew what 'home' meant, in a way in which I knew it not at all. They were more carelessly genial and less serious and preoccupied than I was. They all had mothers, too. I do not wish to say that they were necessarily much better off than I. They had certain qualities which I lacked, the product of experiences I had never enjoyed. And I had various qualities which they had not. On the whole, perhaps, I was more mature than they were; and they, perhaps, were more happy and care-free—certainly less self-conscious—than I was. There was a kind of Freemasonry of shared experience among them, and I had never been initiated. They were established members of a recognised order, to which I did not belong. They were members of families of a certain defined status. I was an isolated small boy, with a father, and no particular status.
It has often occurred to me to wonder why my recollections of our arrival and first days in Sydney should be so blurred and unsatisfactorily vague. One would have thought such episodes should stand out very clearly in retrospect. As a fact, they are far less clear to me than many an incident of my earlier childhood.
What I do clearly recall is lying awake in my makeshift bunk for some time before daylight on the morning we reached Sydney, and, finally, just before the sun rose, going on deck and sitting on the teak-wood grating beside the wheel. There, on our port side, was the coast of Australia, the land toward which we had been working through gale and calm, storm and sunshine, for more than ninety days. Botany Bay, said the chart. I thought of the grim record I had read of early settlement here. And then came the pilot's cutter, sweeping like a sea-bird under our lee. The early sunshine was bright and gladsome enough; but my recollection is that I felt somehow chilled, and half frightened. That sandy shore conveyed no kindly sense of welcome to me.
The harbour—oh, yes, the harbour was, and is, beautiful, and I can remember thrilling with natural excitement as we opened up cove after cove, while the Ariadne—stately as ever, but curiously quiescent now, with her trimly furled and lifeless sails—was towed slowly to her anchorage. The different bays—Watson's, Mossman's, Neutral, and the rest—had not so many villas then as now. Manly was there, in little; but surf-bathing, like some other less healthful 'notions' from America, was still to come. From the North Shore landing-stage one strolled up the hill, and, very speedily, into the bush.
Yes, the place was naturally beautiful enough; but the Ariadne was home; her every deck plank was familiar to me; I knew each cleat about her fife-rails, every belaying-pin along her sides, every friendly projection from her deck that had a sheltering lee. The shining brass-bound, teak-wood buckets ranged along the break of her poop—the crew's lime-juice was served in one of these, and they all were painted white inside—I see them now. Ay di mi! as the Spanish ladies say; I am not so sure that any place was ever more distinctly home to me. Over the rail, across the dancing waters of the harbour, where the buildings clustered about Circular Quay; as yet, of course, there could be nothing homely for me about all that. And, as to me, it never did become very homely; perhaps that is why my recollections of our first doings there are so vague.
How often, in later years, my heart swelled with vague aspiring yearnings toward what lay beyond, while my eyes ranged over that same smiling scene, from the Domain, Lady Macquarie's Chair, and the purlieus of Circular Quay! (There were no trams there then.) Here one saw the ships that carried folk to and from—what? To and from Home, was always my thought; though what home I fancied that distant island in her grey northern sea had for me, heaven knows! Here one rubbed shoulders, perchance, with some ruddy-faced, careless fellow in dark blue clothes, who, but a short couple of months ago, walked London's streets, and would be there again in the incredibly brief space of six weeks or so. Dyspepsia itself knows no more fell and spirit-racking anguish than nostalgia brings; and at times I have fancied the very air—bland, warm, and kindly seeming—that circulates about the famous quay must be pervaded and possessed by germs of this curious and deadly malady. At least, that soft air is breathed each day by many a victim to the disease; old and young, and of both sexes.
No doubt we must have spent some days in Sydney, my father and myself; but from the Ariadne, and the parting with Nelly Fane and my other companions, memory carries me direct to the deck of a little intercolonial steamer, bound north from Sydney, for Brisbane and other Queensland ports. I see myself in jersey and flannel knickers sitting beside my father on the edge of a deck skylight, and gazing out across dazzlingly sunlit waters to the near-by northern coast of New South Wales. Suddenly, my father laid aside the book which had been resting on his knee, and raised to his eyes the binoculars he used at sea.
'How extraordinary,' he murmured. And, my gaze naturally following his, I made out clearly enough, without glasses, a vessel lying high and dry on the white sand of a fair-sized bay.
My father's keen interest in that derelict ship always seemed to me to spring into being, as it were, full-grown. There was in it no period of gradual development. From the moment his eyes first lighted upon the tapered spars of the Livorno, where she lay basking in her sandy bed, his interest in her was absorbing. Everything else was forgotten. In a few minutes he was in eager conversation about the derelict with the chief officer of our steamer. I remember the exact words and intonation of the man's answer to my father's first question:
'Well, I couldn't say for that, Mr. Freydon' (In Australia no one ever forgets your name, or omits to use it in addressing you), 'but I can tell you the day I first saw her. She was lying there exactly as she is to-day. I was third mate of the Toowoomba then; my first trip in her, and that was seven years ago come Queen's Birthday. Seen her every trip since—just the same. No, she never seems to alter any. She's high and dry, you see; bedded there on an even keel, same's if she was afloat. Yes, it is a wonder, as you say, Mr. Freydon; but it's a lonely place, you see; nothing nearer than—what is it? Werrina, I think they call it; fifteen mile away; and that's a day's march from anywhere, too. Oh yes, there might be an odd sundowner camp aboard of her once in a month o' Sundays; but I doubt it. She isn't in the track to anywhere, as ye might say. No, I guess it would only be bandicoots, an' the like o' that you'd find about her; an' birds, maybe. Only thing I wonder about her is, how she landed there without ever losing her top-hamper, and why nobody's thought it worth while to pick her bones a bit cleaner. Must be good stuff in her stays an' that, to have stood so long, with never a touch o' the tar-brush.'
There was more in the same vein, but this much comes back to me as though it were yesterday that I heard the words. I see the mate's hard blue eye, and crisply curling beard; I see the upward tilt of the same beard as he spat over the rail, and my father's little retreating movement at his gesture. (My father never lost his sensitiveness about such things, though I doubt if he ever allowed it to appear to eyes less familiar with his every movement than my own.) It seems to me that my father talked of the derelict—we did not know her name then, and spoke of her simply as 'the ship'—for the rest of the day, and for days afterwards; and the key to his thoughts was given in one of his earliest remarks:
'What a home a man might make of that ship—all ready to his hand for the asking! The sea, trees—there were plenty of trees—sunshine, solitude, and space. Think of the peacefulness of that sun-washed bay. Nothing nearer than fifteen miles away, and that a mere hamlet, probably. Werrina—not a bad name, Nick—Werrina. Aboriginal origin, I imagine. And all that for the mere taking; open to the poorest—even to us. You liked the Ariadne, Nick. What would you think of a ship of our own?'
Assuredly, we were the strangest pair of emigrants....
Naturally, my father's suggestion, thrown out as it were in jest, whimsically, fired my fancy instantly. 'How glorious!' I said. 'But can we, really, father?'
It was less than a week later that we walked out of Werrina's one street into the bush to the westward of that township, accompanied by Ted Reilly and a heavily-laden pack-horse—Jerry. Ted was one of Werrina's oddities, and, in many respects, our salvation. The Werrina storekeeper shook his grizzled head over Ted, and vowed there wasn't an honest day's work in the man.
'What's the matter with Ted is he's got no Systum; never had since he was a babby.' (My thoughts reverted at once to a highly coloured anatomical diagram which hung in the cabin of the Ariadne's captain: the flayed figure of a man whose face wore the incredibly complacent look one sees on the waxen features of tailors' dummies, though the poor fellow's heart, liver, kidneys, and other internal paraphernalia were shamelessly exposed to the public gaze. The storekeeper's tone convinced me for the time that poor Ted had been born lacking some one or other of the important-looking purple organs which the diagram had shown me as belonging to the human system.) 'He's a here-to-day-and-gone-to-morrow, come-day-go-day-God-send-Sunday sort of a customer, is Ted—my oath! Wanter Systum. That's what I'm always telling 'em in this place. It's wanter Systum that's the curse uv Australia; an' Ted's got it worsen most. Don't I know it? I gave him a chanst here in my store. Might ha' made a Persition frimself. But, no; no Systum at all. He was off in a fortnight, trappin' dingoes in the bush, or some such nonsense. He's for no more use than—than a bumble bee, isn't Ted Reilly; nor never will be.'
Well, he was of a good deal of practical use to us, the storekeeper notwithstanding; but I admit that there was a notable absence of 'Systum' about the man. He was singularly unmethodical and haphazard, even as his kind go in the remoter parts of Australia. He made our acquaintance very casually by asking my father for a match, almost before we had descended from the coach outside the Royal Hotel, Werrina. (There was nothing royal, or even comfortable, about this weatherboard and iron inn, except its name.) And, oddly enough, my father fell into conversation with him, and seemed rather to take to the man forthwith.
I know it was by his advice, as kindly meant, I am sure, as it was shrewd, that my father said nothing to any one else in the township of his fantastic ideas regarding what we now knew to be the derelict Italian barque, Livorno, of Genoa. It was given out that we were going camping, between Werrina and the coast; and, no doubt my father was credited by the local wiseacres with the possession of some crafty prospecting scheme or another. Most of the folk thereabouts had been always wont to look to the bush (chiefly for timber) as a source of livelihood, but their attention was usually turned inland rather than seaward; for the bulk of the country between Werrina and the sea is poor and swampy, or sandy. The belt of timber we had seen behind our derelict's bay was not extensive.
It was Ted who bought Jerry for us for the modest price of L3, 15s.; and I make no doubt that serviceable beast would have cost my father L7 if he had had 'the haggling of it.' Pack-saddle and tent, with a number of other oddments, had come with us from across the Queensland border; first, by rail, and thence by numerous devious coach routes to Werrina. The only thing about our expedition which I think Ted really mistrusted and disliked was the fact that we set forth on foot. He told my father of horses he could buy, if not for three a penny, certainly at the rate of two for a five-pound note. (Animals no better, or very little better, are selling for L20 apiece in the same country to-day.) But my father spoke of the cost of saddlery and the like. He had been brought up in a land where horse-keeping means considerable expense, and the need for husbanding his slender resources was strongly foremost in his mind just now. But Ted had all his life long thought of horses as a natural and necessary adjunct to man's locomotion. I have seen him devote considerable time and energy to the task of catching Jerry in order to ride across a couple of hundred yards of sand to his favourite wood-cutting spot. To be poor, that is, short of money, was a natural and customary thing enough in Ted's eyes; but to go ajourneying as a footman suggested a truly pitiable kind of destitution, and did, I am convinced, throw a shadow over what otherwise had been the outset of a jaunt entirely after his own heart.
As the morning wore on, however, and we left behind us all likelihood of chance encounters with more fortunately placed and therefore critical people, bestriding pigskin, Ted's spirits rose again to their normal easy altitude, and mounted beyond that to the level of boyish jollity. Myself, I incline to think that walking along a bush track, with a long stick in his hand and a pack-horse to drive before him, was really an ideal situation for Ted, despite his preference for riding. Afoot, he could so readily step aside to start a 'goanner' up a tree, or pluck an out-of-the-way growth to show me.
There never was such a fellow for 'noticing' things, as they say of children. Print he never read, so far as I know, and perhaps this helped to make him so amazingly keen a reader of Nature. Not the littlest comma on that page ever eluded him.
'Hullo!' he would say when Werrina was miles away behind us. 'Who'd've thought o' that baldy-faced steer o' Murdoch's bein' out here?' One gazed about to locate the beast. But, no. No living thing was in sight. In passing, quite casually, Ted's roving eye had spied a hoof mark, perhaps a day old or more, in the soft bottom of a tiny billabong; a print I could hardly make out, leave alone identify as having been made by this beast or the other, even under the guidance of Ted's pointing finger. Yet for Ted that casual glance—no stooping, no close scrutiny—supplied an accurate and complete picture: the particular beast, its gait, occupation, and way of heading, and the period at which it had passed that way. Withal, it was true enough, as the storekeeper said, poor Ted had no 'Systum'; or none, at all events, of the kind cultivated in shops and offices.
However much at fault I may be in recollection of our arrival at Sydney, my memories of our first night at Livorno Bay (so my father christened the derelict's resting-place) could hardly be more vivid and distinct. That night marks for me the beginning of a definite epoch in my life.
I passed the spot in a large inter-state steamer last year. There was no sign of any ship there then, so far, at all events, as I could make out with a borrowed pair of glasses; and the place looked very much the same as any other part of the Australian coast. There are thousands of such indentations around the shores of the island continent, with low headlands of jagged rock by way of horns, and terraces of shell-strewn sand dotted over with ti-tree scrub, which merges into a low-lying bush of swamp oak and suchlike growths, among which, as like as not, you shall find, as we found, a more or less extensive salt-water lagoon, over the sandy bar of which big, tossing breakers will roll in from the Pacific in stormy weather. Yes, I would say now that there is nothing very peculiar or distinctive about Livorno Bay for the observer who is familiar with other parts of Australia's coast.
But in my youthful eyes, seen on the evening of our arrival, after a fifteen miles' walk, and, seen, too, in the glow of a singularly angry-looking evening sky, Livorno Bay, with its derelict barque to focus one's gaze, presented a spectacle almost terrifying in its desolation. Years must have passed since anything edible could have been found on board the Livorno. Yet I hardly think I should exaggerate if I said that two thousand birds rose circling from various points of vantage about the derelict as we approached her sides. That this winged and highly vocal congregation resented our intrusion was not to be doubted for a moment. Short of actually attacking us with beak and claw, the creatures could hardly have given more practical expression to their sentiments. The circumstance was trivial, of course, but I think it somewhat dashed my father's ardour, and I know it struck into my very vitals.
'Begone, you interlopers, or we will rend you! This is no place for humans. Here is only death and desolation for the likes of you. This place belongs of immemorial right to us, and to our masters, the devouring elements. Begone!'
So it seemed we were screamed at from thousands of hoarse throats.
For my part I was well pleased when my father agreed to Ted's suggestion that we should postpone till morning our inspection of the ship, and, in the meantime, concentrate upon the more immediate necessity of pitching camp for the night in the shelter of the timber belt and outside the domain of the screaming sea-birds. Our tent was fortunately not one of the cumbersome sort I had seen on Wimbledon Common at home, but a light Australian contrivance of cotton, enclosing a space ten feet by eight, and protected by a good large fly. Thanks mainly to Ted and his axe we had the necessary stakes cut, and the tent pitched before dark. Meanwhile, the little fire Ted had lighted against a blackened tree-stump had grown into the sort of fiery furnace that was associated in my mind with certain passages in the Old Testament; and, suspended by a piece of fencing wire from a cross stake on two forked sticks, our billy was boiling vigorously.
In all such bush-craft as this Ted was facile princeps, and he asked no better employment. Jerry was turned out to graze, belled and hobbled (for safety in a strange place), and just as actual darkness closed in upon us—no moon was visible that night—we sat down at the mouth of the tent to sup upon corned beef, bread and cheese and jam; the latter in small tins with highly coloured paper wrappers.
By this time my sense of chill and depression had pretty well evaporated. The details of our domesticity were most attractive to me. But I am not sure that my father quite regained his spirits that evening. We each had a canvas camp-stretcher of the collapsible sort. In ten minutes Ted had made himself a hammock bed of two sacks, two saplings, and four forked stakes, which for comfort was quite equal to any camp cot I have yet seen. Sleep came quickly to me, at all events, and whenever I woke during the night, as I did some three or four times, there was booming in my ears that rude music which remained the constant accompaniment of all our lives and doings in Livorno Bay: the dull roar of Pacific breakers on the sand below us, varied by a long sibilant intaking of breath, as it seemed, caused by the back-wash of every wave's subsidence.
Very gently, to avoid disturbing my father—I can see his face on the flimsy cot pillow now, looking sadly fragile and worn—I crept out from our tent in time to see the upper edge of the sun's disc (like a golden dagger of the Moorish shape) flash out its assurance across the sea, and gild with sudden bravery the trucks and spars and frayed rigging of the barque Livorno. Life has no other reassurance to offer which is quite so emphatic as that of the new risen sun; and it is youth, rather than culture, which yields the finest appreciation of this. In its glad light I ran and laughed, half naked, where a few hours earlier, in the murk of coming night, the sense of my own helpless insignificance in all that solitude had descended upon me in the shape of physical fear. Sea and sand laughed with me now, where before they had smitten me with lonely foreboding, almost with terror. I had my first bathe from a Pacific beach that morning; and, given just a shade more of venturesomeness in the outsetting, it had been like to be my last. In Livorno Bay the breakers were big, and the back-wash of their surf very insistent.
The fire of his enthusiasm was once more alight in my father when I got back to our camp that morning; and one might have supposed it nourished him, if one had judged from the cursory manner in which his share of our simple breakfast was dispatched. Then, carrying with him a tomahawk, I remember, he led us down across the sand to where the ship lay, so deeply bedded that one stepped over her rail as it might have been the coaming of a hatch. Her deck, and indeed every uncovered part of the Livorno, was encrusted in the droppings of multitudinous sea-fowl. For almost as many years as I had lived, probably, these creatures had made a home of the derelict. To be sure, they had as good a right to it as we had; yet I remember how keenly we resented their claims, in the broad light of day; even as they, on the previous evening, had resented us. Ted promised them a warm time of it, and congratulated himself on having brought his old gun.
'I'll show 'em whose ship it is,' he said, 'to-night.' And the boy in me rose in sympathetic response. I suppose I looked forward to the prospect of those birds being given a taste of the fear they had helped to inspire in me.
The Livorno had a long, low poop, no more than three feet high, and extending forward to the mainmast. She had none of the Ariadne's bright-work, as the polished teak was always called on that ship. Her rails and deck-houses had been painted in green and white, and I made out the remains of stencilled ornamentation in the corners of panels. No doubt my father had his preconceptions regarding the derelict of which he had thought so much in the past week. In any case he did not linger by the way, but walked direct to the cuddy or saloon, which we entered by a deeply encrusted, sun-cracked scuttle, just forward of the mizzen-mast. So here we were, at length, at the heart of our quest.