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"It's a fine harbour," Halfhyde said.
His companion gave him a scathing glance. "Best in the world. Captain Cook, he may have been a bloody pommie, but he knew a thing or two. When he found Port Jackson, he reckoned it was pretty good. So do I. Just look at it."
Halfhyde did; not for the first time, though his entry between Sydney Heads in the old windjammer Aysgarth Falls under Captain McRafferty had been his first experience of Australian waters. That had been some months earlier, and in the meantime he had been busy looking for a ship with which to found his own line. Now, in company with William Sturt, a director of the Australian Joint Stock Bank, he was looking down on Port Jackson from the lawns of Government House – overlooking Farm Cove and surrounded by the Domain and the Botanic Gardens. It was a splendid morning, one of sun and sparkle with a light breeze ruffling the blue waters of the harbour as they washed the shores of Sydney Town, a fine morning on which to do business and found a shipping line. Such was now within Halfhyde's grasp and he was glad when Sturt turned from the prospect of beauty spread below him and got down to brass tacks.
"I understand you have the money through," Sturt said.
"I have." The draft had arrived three days earlier by the mail steamer from Tilbury: thirty thousand pounds sterling from his wife's Uncle Henry. At the same time a letter had come, also from Henry Willard, congratulating him on having found a ship to suit him. Halfhyde had read the letter with affection: his father-in-law's brother, unlike his father-in-law, had been a good friend who understood well enough how Halfhyde had been inveigled into matrimony – with Miss Mildred Willard as was, only and plain daughter of Halfhyde's former senior officer, Vice-Admiral Sir John Willard. Halfhyde, now no longer even a half-pay lieutenant of the Royal Navy, was, it seemed, totally out of Sir John's regard, as totally as he was out of the Queen's service. Mildred, according to Uncle Henry, was still indulging in an extended attack of the vapours. Even the dread word divorce had been uttered in the Willard home in the High Street of Old Portsmouth ... though Uncle Henry believed it would not come to that when his brother came face to face with the certainty of scandal, the ostracism of his family from decent society, and the equal certainty that no-one else would marry his daughter. Mildred, the cross that Lady Willard had been determined to shift on to Halfhyde's shoulders, would remain firmly about those of Sir John. Halfhyde felt no remorse; Mildred had been a disaster from the moment she had turned in horror from all matrimonial advances on the first night of the honeymoon. Uncle Henry had been his deliverance, suggesting that Halfhyde should go back to sea, not in the Queen's ships – denied to him in any case as he had already been placed on the half-pay list – but to gain experience of merchant ships with a view to buying himself his own vessel which he would sail as owner-master.
Halfhyde had jumped at it. The sea was his life, Mildred his incubus. Uncle Henry had detested his own niece, and had little more love for his pompous brother or his sour-faced sister-in-law. A country squire in Hampshire, Uncle Henry was a lover of life who found himself at one with Halfhyde's restlessness in an intolerable situation. The money – it was to be a loan, repayable when Halfhyde felt able to – had not been sought; it had been freely and generously offered ... "And you have a ship in mind," William Sturt said, breaking into Halfhyde's thoughts.
"Yes, indeed I have. I shall be seeing Captain Good this very afternoon. She's a trim ship, small but sound, and I count myself lucky. Having bought her, all I shall need is a cargo."
"And there's the rub, as you'll find." Sturt, a short, stout man, reached up and laid a hand on Halfhyde's shoulder. "I wish you luck, Captain Halfhyde —"
"A little early for the captain, Mr. Sturt. I am not yet the owner, nor the master."
"You're a master mariner."
"A certificate of service following upon my years in the Queen's ships – not a certificate of competency."
"It comes to the same thing."
Halfhyde nodded. "Officially, yes. It won't satisfy me, however. I feel it has yet to be earned."
"I wouldn't worry about that," Sturt said. "Worry about your cargo – and maybe a passenger or two. Passengers are better payers in these times, Captain, though many a master dislikes them. Cargo doesn't eat, complain and give itself airs and graces. Passengers, one has to admit, do all three. But you have to live."
Halfhyde thought: yes, you have to live. Live he would; he would not be beaten before he started. A cargo would be found. His months in Sydney, interrupted by a couple of voyages in a coaster trading across the Great Australian Bight to Fremantle on the Swan River, had not been idle ones. He had made a number of contacts in shipping and exporting circles and had mingled with the wharfies in the docks of Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle, picking up all manner of useful scraps of knowledge, getting to know the Australians. That had been an uphill task; the pommies always had to prove themselves in Australian eyes. At the start all pommies tended to be regarded as hoity-toity remittance men, loafers, bad eggs or just plain bums. Australia was a man's country, however, and that suited Halfhyde, suffering from a surfeit of marriage and a mother-in-law like a vinegar bottle. He had made friends both high and low. Yes, a cargo would come.
After leaving the reception at Government House, Halfhyde walked down to the berths at Circular Quay. Like Liverpool, Sydney was a seaman's town. It held more than twenty-three miles of quays and wharves able to load and discharge the largest vessels afloat. The trade of the port stood at upwards of twenty million pounds a year and there should be pickings for an energetic owner-master out of such a sum. Coming down to the quay Halfhyde stopped for a moment and looked at the SSTaronga Park, shortly to be his. Small – as he had said to Sturt – she was of no more than 1,400 net register tons, with raised fo'c'sle, centre superstructure and poop, and the cargo holds in between. A thin funnel rose abaft the bridge, black-painted. The upperworks were painted a dull brown, the hull black with green boot-topping. The engine, which was of the inverted vertical direct-acting variety, drove a single screw that would propel her through the water at a maximum speed of ten knots. Her furnaces would need to be fed; coal was not cheap. The price stood currently at around five shillings a ton. Had Halfhyde gone for sail, the wind would have been free; but free wind to drive a half-empty ship was not a good business proposition. The shippers were turning more and more to steam rather than sail for their exports, for the steamships made their passages faster and time was money. The windjammers, as the last decade of the nineteenth century ran towards its close, were beginning to lose even the wool trade for London.
Halfhyde moved on, halted again alongside the Taronga Park at the quay. As he looked up at her with an already proprietorial air, an old man, white-haired, came out from a doorway on the master's deck immediately below the bridge.
Halfhyde took off his hat. "Good afternoon, Captain Good."
"So you've come."
"Never mind that. You'd better step aboard, Mister."
Halfhyde did so. The gangway was spotless, as was the rest of the ship and her fittings. She was recently in from a coasting voyage; Captain Good, the vendor, had not remained wholly harbour bound while the negotiations with Halfhyde had proceeded. He couldn't afford to and wouldn't have wanted to. Good was sixty-nine years of age and had been fifty-four years at sea. He didn't want to go ashore but age and illness had caught up with him; though the doctors didn't know what was the matter, he had developed a shake in his limbs and a feeling of constant lassitude, and he knew he couldn't go on commanding a ship for much longer. So he had accepted the inevitable and put his ship up for sale. To its owner-master, the Taronga Park was not just his ship and his livelihood: it was his home. Halfhyde understood the wrench. He had had many a talk with Captain Good the last few weeks, over glasses of Old Soldier rum. There was no wife, never had been; Captain Good had been married to the sea. His retirement would be spent in the home of his widowed sister in a small house in Balmain. He didn't look forward to it. His sister sounded like a muted Mildred. Where Mildred's one interest was horses, the Captain's sister was interested solely in church matters, and to pass the time when not actually in church she stuffed hassocks.
"Bloody penance it's going to be," Captain Good had said when the question came up. "But with luck it'll not last long. She'll have me in my grave in no time, that's for sure."
"There's always the rum."
"Aye! When she's not around to smell it. Her or the parson. Parson's got a nose on him like a customs rummager."
Thinking of this and other conversations, Halfhyde followed Captain Good into his cabin, the cabin soon to be his own. He tried not to look too hard at things he would wish to change. It wouldn't matter afterwards: Good, he suspected, would never wish to set foot aboard again. Memories were best kept intact. The Captain told him to be seated, and brought out the rum bottle, pouring a sizeable amount with a hand that shook like an aspen but somehow managed to get the liquor into both glasses without spilling a drop. It was a slow process, however.
Halfhyde raised his glass. "Good health, sir."
"It's too late for that, Mister," Good said bitterly. Halfhyde wished his tongue had been more tactful; there were other toasts. "So you have the money."
"Yes. It will be paid over as promptly as you wish. But you must take your time, sir."
Good shook his head. "No, I'll not do that. You're raring to come aboard as master, and as for me, the cleaner and sooner the break the better. It'll take time for the formalities to be gone through since officialdom spends its days on its bottom, but I'll cause no delays, you may be sure."
"Thank you, sir."
"And my crew. You'll take them?"
"If they wish to join me. On your past recommendations, I'll sign them all."
"I don't know about recommendations," Good said. "They're as fair as you'll ever get these days. The mates are all right ... the fo'c'sle crowd's a mixed bag like all fo'c'sle crowds. You can trust the bosun. You can nearly always trust bosuns." His shaking hand brushed spilled birdseed from the cabin table's green baize cloth. From a hook in the deckhead where a lamp might have been expected to hang there hung instead a birdcage containing a canary, its beak probing a small china feeding bowl fixed to the bars. There was a little birdseed in Halfhyde's rum. A goldfish swam in circles in a glass bowl on the roll-top desk. Goldfish and canary would presumably leave the ship with Captain Good. Good went on, "Don't know about engineers. I have to admit I don't like them."
"I know you regretted leaving sail, sir," Halfhyde said.
Good passed a hand over his forehead. He had told Halfhyde that he had lost his ship – not his fault, that had been proved – broken up on the Barrier Reef. He had got the insurance money and borrowed some more ...it had seemed only sensible to go for steam with sail cargoes dropping away. Now he said, "I didn't like it, I can tell you, but a man must eat. That was four years ago. I've never got really used to not being in a windjammer. Some ways, that makes the break the easier now."
Halfhyde walked along Macquarie Street, turned off half-way up, entered a building and climbed a flight of stairs. He went into a waiting room and banged on the frosted glass of a hatch. A head appeared: Halfhyde had an appointment with a Mr Matthews. He was kept waiting for almost half an hour. When he was shown to a private office he said, "I've bought, or am about to buy, the Taronga Park. Now I want a cargo."
Matthews smiled. "Not as easy as that, Captain."
"I understood you could accommodate me?"
"Sure – at the time. Just now, there's nothing. The mail boat took the lot. I'm sorry, but there it is. Keep in touch – call round again and there may be something, but no promises. A lot of masters are in the same boat, you know."
That was that. Halfhyde took his leave. He visited other shipping agents and exporters' offices and the story was the same. The mail boat had beaten him to it and a good deal of forward shipping had been bespoken for the next mail boat due in from the London River. There was nothing left for a small steamer. Contact after contact failed him; all the earlier, airy promises were seen as dross. Once the purchase money had been paid over, Halfhyde would have but a narrow margin, enough to coal and store his ship for London and little else. The portage bill, record of crew wages and other payments, loomed. Men didn't go to sea for nothing. By the week's end gloom had settled like a pall. Halfhyde had never expected such a series of brick walls; even the contacts passed on by Captain Good had come to nothing. They might all have at least a part cargo soon, but currently there was nothing doing.
Other ships, both sail and steam, were getting cargoes. Halfhyde watched them loading at the wharves, bale after bale of wool going aboard, plus general cargoes. More and more desperately he tramped the streets. Perhaps he would have better luck in another port – Melbourne, Adelaide, Fremantle, even Brisbane. Since his arrival in Australia he'd been told by more than one person that as a pommie he might face difficulty. When it came to the small ships sailed by their owners, the Australians gave priority to their own countrymen.
He hadn't believed it then. He'd been too confident, too euphoric.
Perhaps he should have accepted the dead weight of Mildred; perhaps he should have thrown Uncle Henry's generosity back in his teeth, returned to England, humbly besought the Admiralty to grant him back his commission and waited for them to offer him a lieutenant's appointment aboard a Queen's ship, patiently bearing his conjugal cross until that time came. But his innermost being told him that Mildred was an impossible alternative and that to go back would be to deliver himself lock, stock and barrel into Willard hands, the returned prodigal with his tail between his legs. No: he would not go back. His bed made, he would lie on it. And he could not, would not go back on his purchase.
As soon as the formalities and the documentation were complete Halfhyde paid over the purchase money in the shipbroker's office and when he and Captain Good walked back together to the Taronga Park, Halfhyde went aboard as master. For good or ill, it was done. Captain Halfhyde: it was a satisfactory sound in his ears, even if he was on the verge of bankruptcy.
After a glass of rum he walked to the gangway with the white-haired old man, who was shaking more than ever and suddenly very frail, as though parting with his ship was bringing him close to his end. Even the canary looked depressed, forbearing to peck its seed as it swayed in its cage. In Good's other hand was the goldfish in its bowl. To Halfhyde it looked dead, floating upside down, with a white look about it. He remarked on this.
"Too bloody right," Captain Good said sadly. "It's those customs people, the buggers. They go into everything ... I had some gin to keep away from them. Easier to hide than rum. I'd filled all me jugs and glasses, still had some over as a matter of fact ... then I filled the bloody goldfish bowl from a jug by mistake."
Halfhyde blew out his cheeks in sympathy. "And the fish —?"
"Too right," Captain Good said. "He'll have a decent burial in Balmain, though." Shoulders bowed, the old man turned away, close to tears; then turned back, put down the canary and sketched a salute towards the house flag designed by Halfhyde and made for him by a ship's chandler down by Circular Quay. A blue flag with a large white H in its centre, it floated on a breeze from the mainmast head. The Halfhyde Line ... that was to be the name. Captain Good took Halfhyde's hand and said, "May you succeed to own a dozen fine ships, Captain. I wish you well."
Halfhyde smiled. "I would you could wish me a cargo, sir."
"Yes. I understand very well. Myself, I had no forward cargo for another voyage. If I had done so, it would have been yours, of course." Captain Good paused, hand shaking on the rail. "I wonder ... do you know a man called Porteous Higgins?"
"Go and see him. Shop in Porch Street, in the Cross. He's sometimes of help, so I'm told. I've not had dealings with him myself. I understand he needs watching. But when you're in desperate straits it's a case of any Porteous in a storm!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Halfhyde Line"
Copyright © 1984 Philip McCutchan.
Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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