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Denison's Second Berth Ashore by Louis Becke

 

I have already told how Tom Denison, the South Sea Island supercargo, took a berth ashore as overseer of a Queensland duck farm, which was mortgaged to a bank of which his brother was manager, and how he resigned the post in great despondency, and humped his swag to Cooktown.

Over his meeting with his brother let a veil be drawn. Suffice it to say that the banker told him that he had missed the one great chance of his life, and quoted Scripture about the ways of the improvident man to such an extent that Denison forgot himself, and said that the bank and its infernal ducks could go and be damned. Thereupon his sister-in-law (who was a clergyman's daughter, and revered the Bank as she did the Church) swooned, and his brother told him he was a heartless and dissolute young ruffian, who would come to a bad end. Feeling very hurt and indignant, the ex-supercargo stumped out of the bank, and went down to the wharf to look for a ship.

But there was only a dirty little coasting steamer in port, and Denison hated steamers, for once he had had to go a voyage in one as supercargo, and the continuous work involved by being constantly in port every few days, instead of drifting about in a calm, all but broke his heart. So he rented a room at a diggers' boarding-house kept by a Chinaman, knowing that this would be a dagger in the heart of his sister-in-law, who was the leading lady in Cooktown society; also, he walked about the town without a coat, and then took a job on the wharf discharging coals from a collier, and experienced a malevolent satisfaction when he one evening met Mrs Aubrey Denison in the street. He was in company with four other coal-heavers, all as black as himself; his sister-in-law was walking with the wife of the newly-appointed Supreme Court judge. She glanced shudderingly at the disgraceful sight her relative presented, went home and hysterically suggested to Aubrey Denison, Esq., that his brother Tom was a degraded criminal, and was on the way to well-deserved penal servitude.

After the coal-heaving job was finished, Denison lay back and luxuriated on the £5, 17s. 6d. he had earned for his week's toil. Then one morning he saw an advertisement, in the North Queensland Trumpet-Call, for a proof-reader. And being possessed of a certain amount of worldly wisdom, he went down to the bank, saw his brother (who received him with a gloomy brow) and said he should like to write a letter to the editor of the Trumpet-Call. He wrote his letter—on bank paper—and then went back to Sum Fat's to await developments. The following morning he received a note from the editor telling him to call at the office. To Susie Sum Fat, his landlord's pretty half-caste daughter, he showed the missive, and asked her to lend him one of her father's best shirts. Susie, who liked Denison for his nice ways, and the tender manner in which he squeezed her hand when passing the bread, promptly brought him her parent's entire stock of linen, and bade him, with a soft smile, to take his pick. Also that night she brought him a blue silk kummerbund streaked with scarlet, and laid it on his pillow, with a written intimation that it was sent 'with fondiest love from Susie S. Fat.'

Arrayed in a clean shirt, and the swagger kummerbund, Denison presented himself next morning to the editor of the Trumpet-Call. There were seven other applicants for the billet, but Denison's white shirt and new kummerbund were, he felt, a tower of strength to him, and even the editor of the Trumpet-Call seemed impressed—clean shirts being an anomaly in Cooktown journalistic circles.

The editor was a tall, stately man, with red eyes and a distinctly alcoholic breath. The other applicants went in first. Each one had a bundle of very dirty testimonials, all of which recalled to Denison Judge Norbury's remarks about the 'tender' letters of a certain breach of promise case. One little man, with bandy legs and a lurching gait, put his unclean hands on the editorial table, and said that his father was 'select preacher to the University of Oxford.'

The red-eyed man said he was proud to know him. 'Your father, sir, was a learned man and I reverence his name. But I never could forgive myself did I permit a son of such a great teacher to accept such a laborious position as proof-reader on the Trumpet Call. Go to Sydney or Melbourne, my dear sir. The editors of all our leading colonial papers were clergymen or are sons of clergymen. I should be doing your future prospects a bitter injustice. A bright career awaits you in this new country.'

He shook the hand of the select preacher's son and sent him out.

Among the other applicants was a man who had tried dugong fishing on the Great Barrier Reef; a broken-down advance agent from a stranded theatrical company; a local auctioneer with defective vision, but who had once written a 'poem' for a ladies' journal; a baker's carter who was secretary to the local debating society; and a man named Joss, who had a terrific black eye and who told Denison, sotto voce, that if the editor gave him any sauce he would 'go for him' there and then and 'knock his bloomin' eye out,' and the son of the local bellman and bill-poster. The editor took their names and addresses, and said he should write to them all in the morning and announce his decision. Then, after they had gone, he turned to Denison with a pleasant smile and an approving look at Sum Fat's shirt, and asked him if he had had previous experience of proof-reading. Denison, in a diffident manner, said that he had not exactly had much.

'Just so. But you'll try and do your best, Mr Denison? Well, come in this evening at eight o'clock, and see Mr Pinkham, the sub-editor. He'll show you what to do. Salary, £2, 15s. Strict sobriety, I trust?'

The successful one said he never got quite drunk, expressed his thanks and withdrew. Once into the street he walked quickly into Sum Fat's, and told the Celestial that he had taken a billet at 'thirty bob' a week on a newspaper.

'Wha' paper?' inquired Sum Fat, who was squeezing a nasty-looking adipocerous mass into fish-balls for his boarders.

'The Trumpet-Call.'

'That's a lotten lag, if you li.' It close on banklupt this long time.'

Denison assented cheerfully. It was a rotten rag, he said, and undoubtedly in a weak position financially; but the thirty bob would pay his board bill.

Then Sum Fat, who knew that the ex-supercargo was lying as regarded the amount of his salary, nodded indifferently and went on pounding his awful hash.


'Where is Mr Pinkham?' asked Denison at eight p.m., when an exceedingly dirty small boy brought him his first proof.

'He's tanked.{*} An' he says he ain't agoin' to help no blackguard sailor feller to read no proofs. And most all the comps is tanked, too.'

     * 'Tanked.' A colonialism which indicates that a person has
     indulged in too much liquid refreshment.

However, with the intelligent assistance of the boy, Denison managed to pull through that night, with the following result in the intercolonial Telegrams' column:—

     'Melbourne, August 13.—The body of an elderly boat was
     foundd last night floating down the Yarra, down the Yarra,
     with its throat cut. It wvs dressed in v grey tweed suit
     with a flannel shirt, dressed in a grey tweed suit with a
     flannel shirt. This mourning a girl said the deceased was
     her father,' etc.

A few lines further down in the same column was the intelligence that Chief Justice Higinbotham of Victoria had 'sentenced the man Power to imprisonment for the term of his natural next.'

When Denison turned up next evening, the editor asked him in distinctly cold tones if he 'had read the paper.'

Denison said he had not—he was too tired.

Then the editor pointed out twenty-nine hideous mistakes, all underlined in blue pencil and on a par with the two above-mentioned. Denison explained in regard to the word 'next' that he meant 'life,' but there being a turned 'e' in 'life' he somehow deleted the entire word, and just then in his zeal, calling out 'next proof,' he unthinkingly wrote 'next' on the proof instead of 'life.' As for the matter of the boat he had no excuse to offer. The editor was not harsh, but said that a man of Denison's intelligence ought to be employed in building up Britain beyond the seas instead of reading proofs.

For the next two issues he pulled through fairly well. Sum Fat advanced him ten shillings, with which he bought Susie a pair of canvas shoes, and Susie kissed him seven times and said she loved him because he never said horrid things to her like the other men. And when she laid her innocent face upon his shoulder and wept, Denison was somewhat stirred, and decided to get away from Susie as quickly as possible.

On the fourth evening a beery local politician sent in a paragraph, written in an atrocious hand, stating that he (the beery man) had 'received a number of replies to the circulars he had sent out to the supporters of the Government,' etc. In the morning the paragraph appeared:—

     'Mr Ebenezer Thompson, the champion of Separation, for
     North Queensland, has again received quite a large number of
     reptiles,' etc.

Of course Mr Thompson was terribly insulted—everyone in Cooktown knew that he had periodical illnesses, during which he imagined he was chased by large snakes joined to blue dogs with red eyes and crimson tails—and demanded Denison's instant dismissal. The editor however, pleaded for him on account of his inexperience, and the matter was passed over.

He worried along pretty well till the end of the week, and then fresh trouble arose. Mr Pinkham the sub-editor, who did the foreign cables and the local fire-brigade items, got exceedingly drunk—a weekly occurrence—and, for his own safety, was locked up by the intelligent police. The three reporters, who all hated Pinkham, declined to sub-edit his cables, and consequently the editor was himself driven to take refuge in drink. The business manager, however, took his place, and told Denison that he relied on him to assist with the cables. Denison hinted at increased emoluments, and the manager promptly threatened to sack him and all the rest of the literary staff. He would do the cables himself, he said. He abhorred Denison on account of Susie and the kummerbund.

Just then the Emperor Frederick was dying at San Remo, and cables were coming through via Sydney.

At one a.m. the business manager came in to Denison and said that they should try to get along amicably. As both the editor and Mr Pinkham, he said, were in a disgraceful condition, he relied upon the rest of the staff to maintain the credit of the Trumpet-Call, etc. Then he showed Denison a cable he had just received, and asked him if he could assist him to make it out. It ran in this wise:

     'London—Emperor Frederick condition very grave. German
     physicians hamper Morell Mackenzie, but approve suggestion
     operation trache Otomy esophagus without delay.'

Denison said (with secret joy) that he was afraid he couldn't help. But he believed that there were two world-famous Italian doctors named Tracchi and Tomy. 'Esophagus' was, he also remarked, no doubt meant for 'sarcophagus'—the Latin name for the gullet. And he suggested to his enemy that it would be well to rush the cable through as quickly as possible. The business manager said he should—he merely felt a little doubt about the proper spelling of the Italian doctors' names, though he, of course, knew that there was no such word as esophagus. As he went out Denison smiled like a fiend. His anticipations of an ample revenge upon the low, sordid creature who had refused him another sovereign a week were gratified in the morning, for under a large heading he saw this:—

               'THE EMPEROR FREDERICK

                'Serious Condition

     'San Remo.— The Emperor Frederick's condition is causing
     grave anxiety. The German physicians in attendance hinder
     Morell Mackenzie in every possible way. They, however, agree
     to his suggestion to send for the two celebrated Italian
     specialists, Drs Tracchi and Tomy, and with them perform an
     operation on the Emperor's sarcophagus. Wheat is 1d. firmer.
     Hides are dull, bank rate unaltered.    Tallow is
     improving.'

The absolute beauty of the thing, however, to Denison's mind, was that the business manager had sold a copy of his translation of the cablegram to the other local paper—run by the Cooktown Labour Union—which had used it word for word.

Nothing of moment occurred after this till a report of a sermon by Dr Stanton, the first Bishop of North Queensland, appeared. His lordship, alluding to certain conditions of the human mind which rendered one's judgment 'subject to warp and bias,' the intelligent compositor made it 'wasps and bees,' and Denison, being very sleepy when he read the proof, let it go. And Dr Stanton, good and generous man, laughed heartily when Denison, with a contrite and broken heart called on him, and asked for his forgiveness.

But Nemesis was coming along. There was a wealthy and atrociously vulgar magnate in Cooktown, whose wife ran second to Mrs Aubrey Denison in local society, and who had just lost her father. The death announcement appeared as follows:—

     'On June 18, at the Bungalow, Cooktown, Donald Dugald
     M'Whannel, Government Inspector of Artesian Bores for North
     Queensland, aged sixty-five.

     'Also,  at  the  same  time and place, five trusses of
     Victoria hay, some pigs and calves, and twenty-six bags of
     onions and potatoes, all in prime order.'

Of course this was the last straw, and Denison was asked to resign. But as Mrs Aubrey Denison wrote and said she should like to forgive him for his disgraceful conduct before he went away, he sent the Scotch foreman of the Trumpet-Call to explain to her that the catch-line of an auctioneer's advertisement had been 'dropped' on the same galley as the mortuary notice, and overlooked when the forme was locked. And so, after a tender farewell to little Susie Sum Fat, and with her kisses still warm upon his lips, Denison went out into the world again to look for a ship.