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Denison Gets Another Ship by Louis Becke

 

Owing to reduced circumstances, and a growing hatred of the hardships of the sea, young Tom Denison (ex-supercargo of the South Sea Island trading schooner Palestine ) had sailed from Sydney to undertake the management of an alleged duck-farm in North Queensland. The ducks, and the vast area of desolation in which they suffered a brief existence, were the property of a Cooktown bank, the manager of which was Denison's brother. He was a kind-hearted man, who wanted to help Tom along in the world, and, therefore, was grieved when at the end of three weeks the latter came into Cooktown humping his swag, smoking a clay pipe, and looking exceedingly tired, dirty, and disreputable generally. However, all might have gone well even then had not Mrs. Aubrey Denison, the brother's wife, unduly interfered and lectured Tom on his "idle and dissolute life," as she called it, and made withering remarks about the low tastes of sailors other than captains of mail steamers or officers in the Navy. Tom, who intended to borrow £10 from his brother to pay his passage back to Sydney to look for a ship, bore it all in silence, and then said that he should like to give up the sea and become a missionary in the South Seas, where he was "well acquainted with the natives."

Mrs. Aubrey (who was a very refined young lady) smiled contemptuously, and turned down the corners of her pretty little mouth in a manner that made the unsuccessful duck-farmer boil with suppressed fury, as she remarked that she had heard of some of the shocking stories he had been telling the accountant and cashier of the characters of the people in the South Seas, and she quite understood why he wished to return there and re-associate with his vulgar and wicked companions. Now, she added, had he stuck bravely to work with the ducks, the Bank (she uttered the word "Bank" in the tone of reverence as one would say "The Almighty") would have watched his career with interest, and in time his brother would have used his influence with the General Manager to obtain a position for him, Tom Denison, in the Bank itself! But, judging from her knowledge of his (Tom's) habits and disposition, she would be doing wrong to hold out the slightest hope for him now, and——

"Look here, Maud, you're only twenty-two—two years older than me, and you talk like an old grandmother;" and then his wrath overpowered his judgment—"and you'll look like one before you're twenty-five. Don't you lecture me . I'm not your husband, thank Heaven above ! And damn the bank and its carmine ducks." (He did not say "carmine," but I study the proprieties, and this is not a sanguinary story.)

From the weatherboard portals of the bank Tom strode out in undisguised anger, and obtained employment on a collier, discharging coals. Then, by an extraordinary piece of good luck, he got a billet as proof-reader on the North Queensland Trumpet Call , from which, after an exciting three weeks, he was dismissed for "general incompetency and wilful neglect of his duties." So with sorrow in his heart he had turned to the ever-resourceful sea again for a living. He worked his passage down to Sydney in an old, heart-broken, wheezing steamer named the You Yangs , and stepped jauntily ashore with sixteen shillings in his pocket, some little personal luggage rolled up in his blanket, and an unlimited confidence in his own luck.

Two vessels were due from the South Sea Islands in about a month, and as the skippers were both well known to and were on friendly terms with him, he felt pretty certain of getting a berth as second mate or supercargo on one of them. Then he went to look for a quiet lodging.

This was soon found, and then realising the fact that sixteen shillings would not permit him viewing the sights of Sydney and calling upon the Governor, as is the usual procedure with intellectual and dead-broke Englishmen who come to Australia with letters of introduction from people who are anxious to get rid of them, he tried to get temporary employment by applying personally at the leading warehouses and merchants' offices. The first day he failed; also the second. On the third day the secretary of a milk company desired him to call again in three days. He did, and was then told by the manager that he "might have something" for him in a month or two. This annoyed Tom, as he had put on his sole clean collar that morning to produce a good impression. He asked the official if six months would not suit him better, as he wanted to go away on a lengthy fishing trip with the Attorney-General. The manager looked at him in a dignified manner, and then bade him an abrupt good-day.

A week passed. Funds were getting low. Eight shillings had been paid in advance for his room, and he had spent five in meals. But he was not despondent; the Susannah Booth , dear, comfortable old wave-puncher, beloved of hard-up supercargoes, was due in a week, and, provided he could inspire his landlady with confidence until then, all would be well.

But the day came when he had to spend his last shilling, and after a fruitless endeavour to get a job on the wharves to drive one of the many steam winches at work discharging cargo from the various ships, he returned home in disgust.

That night, as he sat cogitating in his bedroom over his lucklessness, his eye fell on a vegetable monstrosity from Queensland, presented to him by one of the hands on board the You Yangs . It was a huge, dried bean-pod, about four feet long, and contained about a dozen large black beans, each about the size of a watch. He had seen these beans, after the kernels were scooped out, mounted with silver, and used as match-boxes by bushmen and other Australian gentry. It at once occurred to him that he might sell it. Surely the thing ought to be worth at least five shillings.

In two minutes he was out in the street, but to his disgust found most of the shops closed, except the very small retail establishments.

Entering a little grocery store, he approached the proprietor, a man with a pale, gargoyle-like face, and unpleasant-looking, raggedy teeth, and showing him the bean, asked him to buy it.

The merchant looked at it with some interest and asked Tom what it was called.

Tom said it was a Locomotor Ataxy . (He didn't know what a locomotor ataxy was; but it sounded well, and was all the Latin he knew, having heard from his mother that a dissolute brother of hers had been afflicted with that complaint, superinduced by spirituous liquors.)

The grocer-man turned the vegetable over and over again in his hand, and then asked the would-be vendor if he had any more. Tom said he hadn't. The locomotor ataxy , he remarked, was a very rare bean, and very valuable. But he would sell it cheap—for five shillings.

"Don't want it," said the man rudely, pushing it away contemptuously. "It's only a faked-up thing anyway, made of paper-mashy."

Tom tried to convince him that the thing was perfectly genuine, and actually grew on a vine in North Queensland; but the Notre Dame gargoyle-featured person only heard him with a snort of contempt. It was obvious he wouldn't buy it. So, sneeringly observing to the grocer that no doubt five shillings was a large sum for a man in such a small way of business as he was, Tom went out again into the cold world.

He tried several other places, but no one would even look at the thing. After vainly tramping about for over two hours, he turned away towards his lodging, feeling very dispirited, and thinking about breakfast.

Turning up a side street called Queen's Place, so as to make a short cut home, he espied in a dimly-lighted little shop an old man and a boy working at the cobbler trade. They had honest, intelligent faces, and looked as if they wanted to buy a locomotor ataxy very badly. He tapped at the door and then entered.

"Would you like to buy this?" he said to the old man. He did not like to repeat his foolish Latin nonsense, for the old fellow had such a worn, kindly face, and his honest, searching eyes met his in such a way that he felt ashamed to ask him to buy what could only be worthless rubbish to him.

The cobbler looked at the monstrosity wonderingly. "'Tis a rare big bean," he said, in the trembling quaver of old age, and with a mumbling laugh like that of a pleased child. "I'll give you two shillin's for it. I suppose you want money badly, or else you wouldn't be wanderin' about at ten o'clock at night tryin' to sell it. I hope you come by it honest, young man?"

Tom satisfied him on this score, and then the ancient gave him the two shillings. Bidding him good-night, Tom returned home and went to bed.

(Quite two years after, when Denison returned to Sydney from the South Seas with more money "than was good for his moral welfare," as his sister-in-law remarked, he sought out the old cobbler gentleman and bought back his locomotor ataxy bean for as many sovereigns as he had been given shillings for it.)

Next morning he was down at the wharves before six o'clock, smoking his pipe contentedly, after breakfasting sumptuously at a coffee-stall for sixpence. There was a little American barque lying alongside the Circular Quay, and some of the hands were bending on her head-sails. Tom sat down on the wharf stringer dangling his feet and watching them intently. Presently the mate appeared on the poop, smoking a cigar. He looked at Tom critically for a moment or so, and then said—

"Looking for a ship, young feller?"

The moment Tom heard him speak, he jumped to his feet, for he knew the voice, last heard when the possessor of it was mate of the island trading schooner Sadie Caller , a year before in Samoa.

"Is that you, Bannister?" he cried.

"Reckon 'taint no one else, young feller. Why, Tom Denison, is it you? Step right aboard."

Tom was on the poop in an instant, the mate coming to him with outstretched hand.

"What's the matter, Tom? Broke?"

"Stony!"

"Sit down here and tell me all about it. I heard you had left the Palestine . Say, sling that dirty old pipe overboard, and take one of these cigars. The skipper will be on deck presently, and the sight of it would rile him terrible. He hez his new wife aboard, and she considers pipes ez low-down."

Tom laughed as he thought of Mrs. Aubrey, and flung his clay over the side. "What ship is this, Bannister?"

"The J.W. Seaver , of 'Frisco. We're from the Gilbert Islands with a cargo of copra."

"Who is your supercargo?"

"Haven't got one. Can't get one here, either. Say, Tom, you're the man. The captain will jump at getting you! Since he married he considers his life too valuable to be trusted among natives, and funks at going ashore and doing supercargo's work. Now you come below, and I'll rake out enough money to get you a high-class suit of store clothes and shiny boots. Then you come back to dinner. I'll talk to him between then and now. He knows a lot about you. I'll tell him that since you left the Palestine you've been touring your native country to 'expand your mind.' She's Boston, as ugly as a brown stone jug, and highly intellectual. He's all right, and as good a sailor-man as ever trod a deck, but she's boss, runs the ship, and looks after the crew's morals. Thet's why we're short-handed. But she'll take to you like lightning—when she hears that you've been 'expanding your mind.' Buy a second-hand copy of Longfellow's, poems, and tell her that it has been your constant companion in all your wanderings among vicious cannibals, and she'll just decorate your cabin like a prima-donna's boudoir, darn your socks, and make you read some of her own poetry."

That afternoon, Mr. Thomas Denison, clean-shirted and looking eminently respectable and prosperous, and feeling once more a man after the degrading duck episode in North Queensland, was strolling about George Street with Bannister, and at peace with the world and himself. For the skipper's wife had been impressed with his intellectuality and modest demeanour, and was already at work decorating his cabin—as Bannister had prophesied.