Authors: Ian Townsend
Tags: #Fiction, #General
‘On the 4th and 5th of March, 1899, the East coast of Queensland, in the neighbourhood of Princess Charlotte Bay, between 13deg. 30min. and 14deg. 30min. S.L. was visited by a terrific hurricane, which destroyed vegetation on the shore, wrecked a lightship, schooners, and caused the loss of over 300 lives.’
The Pearling Disaster, 1899:
(Outridge, Brisbane, 1899)
Hugh Percy Beach, as pale as it was possible to be this close to the equator, hurried along Victoria-parade to intercept the Government Resident.
The Honourable John Douglas, his head down, was coming the other way—but before Mr Beach could raise a hand, Douglas veered up Hastings-street as if pulled by a string.
‘Your Honour,’ Beach called. The old man was notoriously difficult to catch. ‘Hoy.’
It was only when the huffing Thursday Island postmaster had reached his side that John Douglas, tugging on his thick white beard, stopped to glare at him.
Douglas wore a white linen suit and with his shocks of white hair he could have been the ghost of Henry Parkes, standing there in the early-morning sun.
‘There you are,’ said Beach, taking a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping his face. He then produced an envelope from the same pocket and held it out. ‘Telegram.’
‘I must get up to the Residence,’ said Douglas.
‘But it’s urgent.’
John Douglas took the envelope without looking at it and waved his stick at the port. ‘I’ve just come from the Government steamer,’ he said.
Beach watched Douglas put the envelope, unopened, inside his jacket. ‘I know. Pleasant cruise?’
‘What?’ said John Douglas.
‘No, it’s damned hot. All the islands becalmed.’
‘Ah. Dead calm it’s been here too these past few days,’ said Beach. ‘I observed the
steam in just now, the smoke staying perfectly over the wake, and wondered how it was amongst the islands. Calm, eh? I must head back to the Post Office and send a telegram. To the Central Weather Office. About how calm it is. Wragge will want to know.’
‘Is that so? Mr Beach, it seems that since I’ve been away the pearling fleets have vanished.’
‘And Captain Porter’s schooner?’
‘Gone to the pearling grounds too, with the others—that’s right.’
‘Oh damn and damnation, Maggie,’ said Douglas, and he strode away again up the street.
‘But your Honour, it’s urgent,’ Mr Beach called after him. ‘The telegram.’
Douglas kept walking.
Halfway up the hill he stopped. His legs were unsteady and he leant heavily on his stick to catch his breath.
The Ellis Channel was a polished green stone at his feet. Port Kennedy lay before him, half a dozen boats twisting slowly at their anchors, tugged by the hard, invisible current. A steamer from the south was coaling at the wharf while the
cooled its boilers nearby. Several luggers lay up in the mud, their masts at two o’clock, but there were no sails.
He looked towards Goode Island and followed the horizon around to Horn.
Hardly a boat in sight.
‘Oh, damn you Maggie, if you’ve left me, too!’ and he hurried on to the Residence.
Maggie Porter stood at the top of the steps to the Residence now, hands on hips, mindless of his distress, and asked, ‘What in heaven’s name are you doing?’
Breathless and white, he managed to say, ‘Thank God.’ He was deeply relieved. He had feared that Maggie had gone to sea with her husband, but here she was. Dear Maggie.
She came down the steps and peered into his face. There was a mist of perspiration on her skin and her forehead creased as she looked him up and down. It gave him some pleasure to see her concern.
‘You look terrible,’ she said.
He tried to wave his stick at the port, but managed only to raise it a few inches above the ground. ‘When in God’s name did they go?’
She took him by the arm and walked him up the steps. ‘Two days after you left.’
‘Two days? Your husband might have mentioned it to me two days
‘There was a change in the wind. You must have noticed.’
Had he? What wind? The weather was universally dreadful and he wasn’t a mariner. Already he’d forgotten any breeze before this calm. In any case, it seemed that the wet-season lay-up had ended early but with its usual rush for the pearling beds—two thousand men ashore and afloat, including Captain William Porter, had vanished from the islands overnight.
‘The price of shell no doubt had something to do with it, too,’ he said. ‘Well, good luck to them I suppose.’
It was cooler inside and he was momentarily blind in the dark dining room. His leg bumped a chair.
‘Are you all right, Father?’
‘Don’t worry about me.’
‘I did say that I’d be here when you returned.’ She couldn’t keep the annoyance from her voice.
‘And I’m glad you see the sense in it,’ he said, but then, ‘Oh Maggie, I am sorry. It was such a long trip and so damned hot.’
She helped him take off his coat, then he sat heavily in the chair while she went to the kitchen.
In general, he supposed, Maggie was a good daughter. She was precocious, even hostile, as a girl, and that seemed not so very long ago. Marriage and childbirth had done little to temper her spirit, but at the end of the day, or at least at the end of his days, he preferred this variety of daughter to the doe-eyed creatures other fathers were blessed with.
‘You see,’ he told her when she returned with water, ‘I thought that you might have met me at the wharf.’
‘But you’re two days late.’
‘Late? What day is it?’ The glass trembled as he drank.
His eyes adjusted and he looked about the room. Light leaked through half-closed shutters and the long, dim room smelled of cigars and furniture polish. The Residence creaked with what Douglas imagined were the white ants still at work.
‘Why is it like a cave in here?’
‘I’m trying to get Alice to sleep. She doesn’t sleep well on land.’
He peered at the bedroom door, left open for any breath of air. ‘She was sleeping when I left. All that child ever seems to do is sleep.’
The words came out before he could stop them, one of the treacheries of old age. The room darkened further as a morning cloud-bank rolled over the island and down towards the mainland.
Maggie asked about his tour of the Torres Strait Islands, and Douglas told her that there’d been an epidemic of church building around the islands.
‘Stopped dead now, though. Everyone seems to have gone off fishing.’
After another silence, Maggie said, ‘Well, at least it’s been quiet, even at night. No one’s been arrested, as far as I know. And Henry’s found you a new cook.’
‘What happened to our old cook?’
‘He sailed with the fleet, of course. He said he would.’
‘Did he? The man was a nag. Months of it, in my own house. What was his name?’
‘Sam, that’s right. Good riddance.’
Douglas sank further into his seat. He’d been hoping, somehow, for a happier return. ‘So who’s this new man?’
At that moment the Japanese servant appeared with a tray that clattered onto the table. A brown puddle appeared beneath the pot of coffee. The little man banged a plate of bacon and eggs before him, then reeled away sharply as if Douglas might strike him.
Maggie smiled as if nothing had happened and reached across the table for the pot.
‘I’ll be mother, shall I?’ she said.
They drank their coffee and Douglas stared at his breakfast.
Maggie said, ‘I’ve had a letter from Hope. It arrived yesterday.’
He had been dreading something of the sort. ‘How is she?’
‘She says that she does not hold you responsible, that the fault is all hers, and that she’s perfectly happy now in Cooktown.’
‘She assumed I knew what she was talking about.’
‘Well, it’s really not your business, Maggie.’
‘It is my business,’ and she leant across the table and said, ‘because you can’t live here alone.’
‘I’m not alone.
She sighed and said, softly, ‘What in heaven’s name were you thinking when you let Hope leave?’
They’d had this row before he left, after Maggie had returned from Auckland with the baby. He’d been hoping that she had come to her senses since then.
‘I’ve told you that I did not
,’ he said. ‘She
Of her own volition.’
Maggie would never let him off the hook, of course. She would have made a better lawyer than her brother Edward, and if Sir Samuel’s legal practice had taken in women, Douglas might have even considered packing her off to Brisbane.
‘Damn it, Maggie, it’s a scandal if it gets out. Don’t you see?’
But of course she didn’t. She couldn’t see because she didn’t know.
‘Did she have a fling?’ she said, her voice low.
‘Oh how romantic. Was he married? My God, don’t tell me he was a pearler.’
He hesitated, but he had to stop her questions so he said, ‘I can’t say.’
‘Well, she never mentioned it to me.’
‘Why would she mention it to you?’
‘I’m her sister!’
But the two were never that close, although it seemed to Douglas that Maggie pretended they were. Maggie was twenty-two at the time; Hope six years older. Maggie had been with child then, in Auckland. He was ill. Hope had her work at the hospital.
The room brightened a little and he found himself looking at the sideboard, at Hope framed in silver. It was the image of a young woman, pretty but for the dark, brooding eyes. She was dressed in white and standing as stiff as the Doric column on which her hand rested. Her eyes interrogated him, her lips tight.
Maggie and Hope had this in common: neither took after their mothers, thank God. All of their faults were his.
A high-pitched heathen song came from the kitchen. Douglas picked up the cutlery and tried to separate the bacon from its rind.
‘I’ll ask her myself,’ she said. ‘In person.’
The knife slipped with a clatter and he put down his fork.
He said, ‘We agreed that you would stay here this season.’
‘You and William may have agreed.
He felt too tired to fight. ‘When are you going?’ he said, staring down at his plate.
‘As it happens, the
sails when the wind gets up again. It’s being towed into port this afternoon.’
‘This afternoon. I see. And what does Captain Porter think of your plans to join him?’ He’d known that this would happen, of course. His irrational hope had blinded him.
The filtered light illuminated one side of Maggie’s face, and he saw the colour was high in her cheeks. She had clenched her fists on the table.
He said, ‘Your husband agreed with me that the fleet was no place for a baby, let alone a white woman.’
‘I didn’t agree to that. I agreed to remain here until you returned. And I
that there should be someone at the Residence to look after you.’
He picked up his knife again and stabbed it at the kitchen door. ‘And you’re leaving me here with this Jap?’
‘He’s just the cook.’
Douglas waved the blade around the empty room, a dramatic flourish. ‘There’s someone else?’
Maggie looked up at the motionless sail-fan hanging from the ceiling. There was no one left to propel it.
‘Yes. Of course,’ she said.
‘Hope, when she returns from Cooktown.’
‘The devil she will.’
‘Father, look at you. Look around.’
Ridiculously, he looked. There was little light with which to see.
‘You can’t live here without Hope.’
A pan crashed to the floor in the kitchen.
‘She can’t come back,’ he said.
‘Of course she can. Cooktown isn’t far from where the fleet’s anchored. I’ll visit. She’ll listen to me.’
,’ he said, most of his arguments fleeing before he could bring them forth. ‘The baby, Maggie!’
‘Alice will be perfectly safe.’
‘Don’t shout, you’ll wake her. She will be safe. You’ve seen the schooner.’
He lowered his voice. ‘Captain Porter agreed that you should remain ashore this season.’
She ignored him.
He said, ‘And Hope cannot come home. She does not want to.’
‘Well, tell me why. Because of some fling? For heaven’s sake, what does it matter? If it was just a fling.’
But it wasn’t just a fling. He pushed his chair back from the table, but sat there, too tired to stand.
‘Maggie,’ he said, ‘you know what people might say.’
‘Well, what will people say about me?’ Maggie’s voice rose. ‘I just want to be with my husband. I
thought that was a quality you, of all people, should appreciate!’
From her room, Alice began to cry.
The Japanese servant appeared from the kitchen, bowed at the table, snatched up the plated food, and hurried away.
Maggie stood. ‘Everything will be all right again when Hope comes home,’ she said. ‘You’ll see.’
And she strode off to her bedroom.
John Douglas sat in the dim empty room feeling as if his heart might give out there and then. He had hoped that things might be miraculously different when he returned. If he prayed hard enough, God could change the past.
He eased himself from his chair and picked up the coat that hung on the back.
He felt something in the pocket and pulled out the telegram.
He opened it, walked over to a shaft of light near the window, and held the paper up close to his eyes.
‘Good Lord,’ he said aloud.
He put his coat on and, with the telegram clenched in his fist, went out the door.
John Douglas leant on his walking stick inside the Thursday Island Post Office. He hadn’t yet been offered a chair.
‘Look,’ said Beach, pointing to his open window. The window framed a short stretch of grass and the comings and goings of the port, a good view if there was a breeze to temper it.
There was not a breath.
‘Wragge from the Weather Office left it when he was up here two weeks ago. The very best.’
Two weeks away and all the world had changed. Douglas walked over to the window and feigned interest.
‘Stevenson’s double-louvred thermometer screen,’ said Beach. There was a small white box newly painted on the lawn. ‘Hygrometer, maximum and minimum self-registering thermometer, earth thermometer, wind compass and a rain gauge.’