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   Chapter 10 ART AND SUSPENSE

Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 30352

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Nothing had been further from my mind than an Australian exhibition. I cared little for the provincial approbation of the Antipodes, and I was hardly ready for Paris-not quite yet. It was only at the reiterated requests of friends (two of them were young Australian artists I had known in my student days in Paris), to whom I was under real obligations for their kindness in receiving and storing my pictures as they dribbled into Sydney, that I finally gave consent to a public showing. In doing this, I had stipulated particularly that they were to take all the troubles and responsibilities of the affair, and that under no circumstances was I to be expected to appear in person-unless, of course, it suited my convenience and inclination at the time.

As I have said, the affair had been most intelligently handled from the first. There had not been enough of my canvases comfortably to fill the wing of the big New South Wales Government Museum and Art Gallery which was available for exhibitions, but my friends, rather than pull the show off at a less pretentious and worse lighted gallery, had added enough of their own pictures to relieve the coldness of otherwise blank walls. These were also South Sea marines-it was a straight seascape show throughout,-but more or less conventional in inspiration and execution. Benchley might have been painting marine backgrounds for an aquarium, so faithfully did he labour to reproduce every detail of jutting coral branches and floating seaweed. Crafts, on the other hand, had fallen early under the influence of Turner, and persisted in bulling the yellow ochre market by drenching his Great Barrier Reef seascapes with such a flood of golden light as was never seen save at the head of the Adriatic and now and then on the coasts of Tripoli and Algeria.

I would hardly characterize my own work as a compromise between these two extremes.... It was not that, though I was less of a slave to form than Benchley, and by no means so emancipated from it as Crafts. Rather, I should say, I was striving, independent of either classic or contemporary influence, to paint such depth, warmth and atmosphere into my tropical seascapes as would make them convey an intenser suggestion of reality. I did not expect water spaniels to pay me the subtle compliment of trying to gambol in my breakers, nor children to try to launch their toy sailboats in my lagoons.... Benchley's "colour photograph" effects were more likely to attain to those distinctions than my comparatively impressionistic sketches. What I was striving for was an effect that would compel some such comment as old Jackson had made the first time he stood off and conned my "Swells and Shells"-"Gawd bly'me, that's it! That water's wetter 'n a swept deck, an', s'elp me Mike, but I c'n bloomin' near sniff them bloody clams!"

Very naturally, then, since the sea was what I was painting, the impressions of anyone who didn't know the sea as intimately as did my beach-combing cronies of Kai wasn't going to worry me much. The opinions of men who knew less about the subject of my pictures, and more about how pictures in general were painted, didn't strike me as anything that counted very seriously. Nevertheless when, at Brisbane on the voyage south, I got the Sydney papers with the account of the opening of the show, it was a good deal of a satisfaction to find that my work appeared to have got over with the art critics. These had, of course (since they were denied Jackson's facility of expression), to confine themselves to the jargon of their kind. It was plain, however, that they had been favourably impressed, and were doing the best they could with their comparatively restricted vocabularies. Mere city dwellers, too, most of them, one had to allow for their limited capacity of appreciation for something-the sea-which they knew only from other pictures. But even allowing for that, it was reassuring to find that they were coming across so whole-heartedly. Such capsules of praise as they had in stock were scattered with lavish hands for whoso would to swallow. "The soul of the sea palpitates through every canvas," said the Herald; "you leave the gallery with the tang of blown brine fresh in your nostrils," said the Telegraph; "Australia is honoured with having the first chance to see this brilliantly distinctive work," said the illustrated Australasian, and promised four full pages of reproductions of the "gems of the collection" in its next issue. The young lady (I judged she was young) who was on the job for the Melbourne Age gushed breathlessly for a column and a half. This was a sample: "In 'Mother-of-Pearl' he has woven with a warp of sunbeams and a woof of rainbow-a shimmering brocade of exultantly sentient brightness!" Capsules of praise, every one of these; but they were from the top shelf beyond a doubt, and the fact that they had been reached for indicated that at least something of my message had dribbled over the frames.

The Bulletin had done rather better than the others in commissioning for the occasion an "art critic" who (as transpired in the course of his half-page article) had sailed his own sixty-footer to Auckland and back. He, at least, had met the sea on more intimate terms than was possible through Sunday mixed-bathing at Coogee and Manley (with occasional ferryboat passages, about the limit the others had gone, I reckoned). Said he, in speaking of "The Seventh Son of a Seventh Son": "The beat of the eternal sea was behind every slash of the brush with which this Franco-American wizard of light and colour painted that rolling mountain of water. I felt my fingers involuntarily clutching at the spokes of the wheel to bring her up to meet the menace of that curling crest. I forgot where I was ... I almost felt the heave of a deck beneath my feet...."

I rather liked that, I must confess; though perhaps it didn't give me quite the double-barrelled thrill of "Heifer" Halligan's comment when I sent for him to pass judgment on that same picture before the paint of my finishing touches upon it was dry. A month before, as I have already mentioned, I had given the "Heifer" a pretty severe pummelling with the four-ounce gloves, and, like the good sport he was, to show that there was no hard feeling on the score of his battered optics, he had volunteered to sail me in his sloop to Tuka-tuva (the reef on which Bell lost the Flying Scud, it may be recalled) so that I could make some close-range studies of hard-running waves at the point of breaking. And, just to show that there was no hard feeling on my part over the wallop below my belt with which the "Heifer" had finally brought the bout to a close, I accepted. The studies had been made-just a few slashes on oil-cloth with a rather useful waterproof paint I had mixed specially for "sloppy" stunts like that-with my shivering anatomy lashed to the Wet-Eyed Susy's bowsprit, while the "Heifer" tacked back and forth just beyond the line where the pull of the shoaling reef, dragging at their bases, let the green-black tops of the combers tumble over in a thunderous roar. As he was really taking a good deal of a chance of losing his handy little pearler, if nothing else, it was only right that the "Heifer's" request for a first look-see at the completed picture should have the call.

He studied it in silence for a minute or two, legs wide apart and his bullet head cocked judicially to one side. Then his fine teeth were bared in a broad grin and he vented a throaty chuckle of amused admiration. Said he: "Mister Whitney, that hulkin' ol' lalapalooser there looks like he has all the kick behint him of that bally wallop on the solar plexus you floored me with the other day." Not even the Sydney Bulletin's dilletante yachtsman could do quite as well as that-from my standpoint, at least. But of course I had a weakness for the Kai viewpoint.

The Exhibition had been opened early in the week-the usual affair of the kind, "Under the Patronage and in the Presence of His Excellency, the Governor General and Lady X--," and a long list of specially invited guests. Amiable old Lord X-- had made one of the happy little speeches for which he was famous. Then they had all had tea and a look at the pictures. This inevitable formal session out of the way, the show was opened to the general public. Under the stimulus of the astonishingly enthusiastic press, the public had come through beyond all expectations. For the next three days the crush at the gallery was, as the Bulletin had it, like a "bargain day rush at Morden's." On Friday, it was advertised, Sir Joseph Preston, R.A., a very distinguished English artist visiting in Australia, had consented to speak at the Exhibition on "The Painter with the New Method and the New Message." This was the day of my arrival in Sydney. It did not occur to me at first just who the subject of the discourse was to be. When it finally came home to me, I began speeding up my transformation process at once. By dint of rushed valeting and dressing, I just managed to reach the gallery as Sir Joseph was getting under way.

I won't endeavour to set down his speech, not even in outline. It was highly complimentary from first to last-and not even condescending, which was as surprising as pleasing when one considered how lofty an eminence Sir Joseph occupied in the art world. One thing I was just a bit disappointed about, though, was that the speaker seemed to assume that the pictures on exhibition represented my ultimate expression, the best I could do, or could be expected to do; whereas I knew that I had hardly got my foot well planted on the first rung of the ladder. I regretted without resenting this. I hadn't painted my hopes and ambitions into the pictures, so how was Sir Joseph Preston, more than anybody else, to see what I was driving at? I rather wanted to tell him about it, though. I hadn't talked with an artist of the old boy's calibre since I was in Paris, and not often there.

I was just screwing up my nerve to push in and introduce myself, when Benchley pounced upon me with a joyous whoop and did the thing as a matter of course. Totally oblivious of the widening circle of wondering cackle that arose as the news of my unexpected, and not undramatic, appearance spread outward through the jam, I held forth to the beaming Royal Academician on the things that had been passing through my mind. The great man fired as though he had been of tow and my words-my ideas-were a torch laid to the inflammable mass of him.

"Magnificent! Perfectly ripping!" he exclaimed with enthusiasm; "but what a shame I didn't know that ten minutes ago so that I could have told them! By Jove, I'll tell them now! Better yet-jolly good idea; you tell them. Just the things you've been telling me."

Benchley, Crafts and my other sponsors descended upon me like a pack of hounds at those words, and the first thing I knew I had been hustled up onto their little dais, and Sir Joseph was introducing me as "a gentleman who can make a few pertinent additions to my late remarks."

I hadn't been called upon for a speech since I won the middle-weight boxing championship of Harvard in my Junior year, and speaking was by no means my long suit even in those days. I bucked up and went through it now though, just as I did on that first occasion. It's no very difficult thing to get away with when you know what you want to say-and have the crowd with you. I spoke briefly, but very earnestly-very much to the point, too, I think. When the crowd had quieted down a bit, tea was served. The next morning, when I read the papers in bed, it was to discover that I had become a fully fledged-or perhaps maned is the proper word-lion.

In one of those same papers there was an interesting item of news about another lion. The special representative the Herald had rushed to Townsville immediately the news of the Cora Andrews affair had been received, wired that the Hon. Hartley Allen, replying from the Quarantine Station to a note the correspondent had addressed him there, announced definitely that it was his intention to pay a visit to his old home town of Sydney. He would leave by the first steamer sailing after the doctors had certified him free of the danger of plague infection.

That was good news. The best I could have hoped for. It confirmed my growing belief that I was not going to have to do much, if any, seeking in order to meet my man. And it was a hundred to one that the doctor with whom I had talked on the Utupua had told Allen of the conversation as soon as the latter came out of his long sleep, I was even inclined to the opinion that his decision to go south as soon as he could had been influenced by a desire to find out once and for all what attitude I was going to take toward him. This was all to the good. There was no need of my hurrying back to Townsville now. I could stay in Sydney and enjoy my triumph while watching that of the Hon. Hartley Allen develop. With a lighter heart than I had known since the rumble of the Cora's anchor chain awakened me on that day of hateful memory in Kai, I tumbled out of bed, took a cold bath, and went down to the dining-room for breakfast-the greatest burst of early matutinal energy I had shown in years.

The avidity of the interest of the public in the Hon. Hartley Allen increased day by day as the time approached for the hero to come south. All of the important papers had special men on the job in Townsville, and every scrap of news bearing the least relation to the man of the hour was instantly put on the wires and rushed into print. Save for that one announcement that he intended visiting Sydney, Allen himself gave out nothing. The correspondents had to confine themselves to reports of his continued improvement in health, as passed out to them by the doctors, and to speculation-columns of it-as to what effect Allen's return might be expected to have upon racing. His elder brother-Sir James, who was now in England-had allowed Hartley's stable to run down a good deal after the latter had been shipped off to the Islands. There were a few good horses left after the best of the string had been sold to pay off debts, and these would form a nucleus which could not fail to develop quickly into a factor to be reckoned with in the meets of next season. There was no limit to the discussion of this phase of the affair, Melbourne and Sydney racing experts devoting even more space to it than the special men in Townsville.

Of the story of the Cora Andrews there was nothing new whatever being brought out. If Allen was telling the doctors at the Quarantine Station anything, it must have been in confidence, for these professed to have learned nothing further every time the correspondents pressed them for details. The schooner herself, it was reported, had broken from her mooring during a gale and been driven upon the beach of Cleveland Bay, some miles from the town. A hole had been stove in her bow and it would be impossible to get her off before considerable repairs were carried out. As she had not been disinfected since the removal of the plague

victims, there would probably be some delay about the repairs, especially as the question of her ownership was in doubt. She had belonged to the man who sailed her in the labour-recruiting trade, and he was dead. So was the Skipper who had taken her over in the Louisiades. It looked like the Hon. Hartley Allen had the most valid claim to her, but that was a matter to be adjusted by the courts in any event. In the meantime, the schooner, as she was lying in fairly quiet water, was probably safe until the next gale. Thus the papers.

When Allen finally came out of quarantine it transpired that he would have a wait of three days on his hands before there was a steamer departing for the south. The delay was unavoidable, although an enthusiastic Sydney paper had suggested that the Admiral commanding the Australian Naval Station should detach a gunboat to bring the hero home. Allen, it appeared, had actually tried to avoid meeting the newspaper men, and consented to do so finally only on the condition that he would not be expected to give out anything in the way of an interview in respect to his past, present or future. As they had no alternative in the matter, the correspondents accepted the ultimatum, but only-as most of them confessed-in the hope of getting it modified when action was joined. They were doomed to disappointment.

Allen received them on the veranda of a house that had been put at his disposal by a prominent local shipping man-a detached bungalow in the grounds of the latter's home on the outskirts of the town. They reported him looking rather soft-a good two stone heavier than his former riding weight. He was heavily browned from the tropical sun, showed a tinge of yellow-doubtless from malaria and dengue,-and his face was deeply lined about the eyes and mouth. He looked to have aged rather more than the five years of his absence: but life in the Islands was hardly the rest cure most Australians fancied it. No, not by a long shot.

Except for his refusal to tell anything whatever of the story of how he had brought the plague ship through the Great Barrier Reef, Allen had been very courteous and agreeable to the pressmen. They all agreed that he was in good fettle-quite full of beans. Indeed, it was Allen who did all of the interviewing. Persistently refusing to answer any questions about himself, he was avid of interest concerning all that had happened in the racing world during his absence. What were the real facts behind the breakdown of the Colchester filly after she had won the Victoria National so handily? Who was that colt Ballarat Boy out of?-the one that had upset all the dope in the spring meet at Adelaide. Were Tod Sloan and Skeets Martin still piling up wins in England? What was the secret of their success? Was there any chance of these or any other of the Yank jockeys coming to Australia?

Answering such questions as these for an hour was the way that bunch of high-salaried feature writers interviewed the Hon. Hartley Allen. And when, as one of them put it in somewhat mixed simile, they were "pumped dry as a last year's dope sheet," the hero announced that the interview was over.

Disappointed in their endeavours to pry any pearls from the oyster into which Allen (for reasons best known to himself) had metamorphosed himself, the correspondents made the best of a bad job by playing up the modesty of the man they had been sent a thousand miles or so to interview. Modest was an adjective that-in the light of what most of them knew of Allen's past-it hadn't occurred to any of them to use before. Now, however, they made up for lost time. The modest hero did this, or the modest hero said that.... There was modesty in the way he stroked his chin, in the shrug of his shoulders, in the way he crossed and uncrossed his legs when sitting. His habit of looking sideways when speaking was rated as a sign of modesty; so was the trick of stroking his cheroot between thumb and forefinger as he smoked. Modest-hero-those words became permanently wedded in my mind during the week that I was reading leaders written with them for an inspiration, the report of sermons preached with them as a text. I cannot hear the one of them to this day without thinking of the other. Modest hero! In the estimation of the public "Slant" Allen, whom I had always thought of as the most egotistic man I had ever known, remained that to the-until public estimation ceased to interest him.

There was one little item of news telegraphed from Townsville which I read with a good deal of grim amusement. The day before his departure Allen was given some kind of a send-off in the Town Hall. As he was riding down the main street on his way to this affair, a man ducked under the rope holding the crowd back at the curb, rushed at the open carriage and aimed a blow at the breast of the hero with a knife. No whit perturbed, the latter had coolly deflected the thrust by striking up the assailant's elbow with his left hand. Then, seizing the ruffian's wrist with his right hand, he had brought it sharply down on the edge of the carriage door, shattering the bones and causing the knife to fall from the relaxed fingers to the pavement. Infuriated by the dastardly attack, the crowd had set upon the would-be assassin, who was only saved from being mauled to death through the interference of none other than Allen himself.

The correspondents were much impressed, not only by the behaviour of the generous-hearted hero in intervening to save the life of the man who had just tried to take his own, but also-and especially-by a curious little circumstance in connection therewith. It was observed, in short, that, while Allen had defended his own body most effectually with his bare hands, as soon as he saw that the man who had attacked him was on the verge of being killed by a bloody-minded mob, quite beyond police control, he whipped out a revolver and used the menace of it to clear a space around the trampled body of his late assailant. The correspondents all thought that was rather fine; indeed, I was inclined to think so myself.

Allen had flatly refused to lodge a complaint against the man who had tried so desperately to knife him, and even declined to help the police in their attempt to identify the fellow. "Just an old Island affair, the big-hearted hero had explained with a careless laugh, as he turned on his way to receive the Golden Key symbolizing the Freedom of the Queen City of Northern Queensland." That was the way the Herald man had it.

At the Police Station the prisoner was recognized at once as a man named Saunders, who had been convicted of a series of bullion robberies in the Kalgoorlie gold fields of Western Australia some years previously. Because of his diabolical practice of throwing red pepper and vitriol to blind his victims, he had gained the sobriquet of "The Squid." He had escaped after serving but eighteen months of his twenty-five-year sentence and made his way across the "Never-Never" to Port Darwin, where all trace of him was lost for the time. He was supposed to have slipped away to the Islands. This was confirmed a few months later, when a boatload of out-bound placer miners were held up and robbed of the fruits of their season's work in the Fly gold fields of New Guinea. Even if one of them, who had once been in Western Australia, had not identified Saunders, the fact that a jar of sulphuric acid had been thrown into the midst of the miners would have connected "The Squid" with the crime beyond a doubt. Australia had but fragmentary record of his later crimes, but he was known to have been mixed up in a number of pearl robberies in and about Thursday Island. He had continued to practise his vitriol-throwing trick (varying it occasionally with a fiendishly original stunt with some native concoction), and was still known as "The Squid." How long he had been lying low in Australia, or why he ventured there, he refused to tell; neither would he offer any explanation of his savage attack upon the hero of the hour. All he had said in the latter connection was: "'Slant' 'll twig why I took a flyer at returning the pig-sticker to him-it was his onct."

I understood at once that the root of "The Squid's" grudge against Allen struck back to that affair of the old pearl pirate's missionary-reared daughter-a copper-haired, ivory-browed Amazon of a girl who had become one of the most consummate sirens in the pearleries after a three-months trip with "Slant" to Singapore had broken her in. Amazing story the whole thing, from its beginning with the girl's mother-a teacher in the Gospel Propaganda Society's school at Thursday Island who had fallen afoul of one of "The Squid's" tentacles long before his conviction-to its ghastly finish, when the girl herself settled her accumulated account against all mankind with the body and soul of one-a hot-headed lump of a young missionary just out from London.

According to the version current in Kai, Allen had not been greatly to blame in the affair with the temperamental rack of bones and red braids that the girl was when she burst upon the Islands from the Auckland convent; but "The Squid" evidently felt that the man who had set the snowball (not a very apt metaphor, for I never heard the girl compared to anything so frigid) rolling was the one to settle with. I had heard of three or four rather ingeniously thought-out attempts he had made to square the account, all of which, however, had failed as a consequence of Allen's quickness of wit and hand in sudden emergency. The knife figuring in the Townsville attack, it occurred to me, was probably the one the resourceful "Slant" had put through "The Squid's" shoulder at twenty paces a fraction of a second before the latter had delivered a flask of red pepper from his upraised hand.

I also thought I understood why Allen had bluntly refused to make any explanation of the attack. A veritable Turk in his relations with women, that Island Lothario had also the Turk's dislike for discussing his women in public. When sober, Allen rarely if ever boasted about anything. When very drunk, he would occasionally toot a horn anent his racing wins; and once, when he was all but swamped-awash to the rails with "Three Star"-I had heard him give a maudlin monologue on men he had put away. But I-and no one else, so far as I knew-had ever heard him talk of the girls he had bagged, though the Lord knows there had been enough of them. (The nearest he ever came to it was in that little joke of his I have mentioned-the one about having "a son and a saddle in every island group in the South Pacific,"-and that was only a sort of delicate implication.) His close-mouthedness about women was one of a number of little things I couldn't help but liking in the rascal.

Since Allen and Saunders would not talk, and since the knife that figured in the affair-a heavy dirk, with a shark's hide handle and the mark of a Lisbon cutlerer on the blade-could not talk, the ever-baffled Townsville correspondents had been able to gather practically nothing about what their journalistic noses told them was a red-hot human interest story. Blocked on that trail, they devoted a lot of space to a discussion of the interesting revelation of the hero's Island nickname. More or less ingenious theories as to "Why 'Slant'?" filled the columns of the papers for a number of days. None of them was within a mile of the mark. One of the correspondents fancied the name had been given Allen because of his "aquilinity, his wiry slenderness, so that he clove the air like a slant of sunbeams as he rode." Another writer was sure the name was suggested by the hero's peculiar crouching seat-the slant of his back as he urged on his mount. They were quite incapable of going beyond Allen's physical characteristics, or of visualizing him save on horseback.

That added another little item to the list of things I could have enlightened the press and the public on about "Slant" Allen, and, in this particular instance, I wouldn't have minded passing on the facts at once. Indeed, I made rather a hit at a Government House luncheon one day by telling how the nearing hero (he was expected to be landing at Brisbane on the morrow) had qualified for his queer nickname. Jackson, who was responsible for the title, had confided to me how he came to bestow it. There was no story behind it, as some of the papers had hinted. Old "Jack," after having known Allen pretty intimately for a couple of years, came to the conclusion one day that the lanky Sydney-sider was the first man he ever met who persistently and consistently kept him guessing. Given a situation, and the foxy old highwayman had discovered that he could usually tell in advance how any given man would be likely to meet it. It was after he had guessed wrong about Allen some dozens of times, without once guessing right, that Jackson made up his mind that there was no forecasting the "slant of his course from the slant of the breeze." And because something in the mellifluous sound of the word struck pleasantly on the trader's ear, he began applying the name to the man who had inspired it. "No re'l reason for it," he explained; "but it sure do seem to fit 'im like a new copper bottom does a schooner."

The Governor General's Aide-de-camp, who was something of a follower of the ponies, confirmed Jackson's opinion and the fitness of the sobriquet. Said the gaily uniformed "Galloper": "The great secret of Allen's astonishing success as a point-to-point rider was his amazing faculty for bringing off the unexpected. Once, at Launceston, I saw him win on a hundred-to-one shot (how he happened to be riding the skate I don't know) by deliberately bolting the course and putting his mount full tilt through a thorn thicket. He was in tenth place, with a mile to go when he did it, and he won the race by a dozen lengths-his own and the waler's hide in tatters.

"Another unexpected win of Allen's," he continued with the wry grin of a man who speaks of dearly bought experience, "was that 'Totalisator' coup of his at Adelaide. His pals got in on the 'Tote' somehow, and-" A warning cough from Lord X-- checked the loquacious "Galloper's" tongue in mid-flight, and, with reddening gill, he faded away with: "Sorry, sir, but I forgot it isn't quite-quite the thing to remember that little chapter of Hartley Allen's past. Quite right, really. My mistake. Dead sorry, sir...."

There was no doubt that Allen was going to have a clean-scored slate to begin writing anew on. I was thinking of that, and "Why 'Slant'?", as I walked back to the hotel an hour later. "No forecasting the slant of his course from the slant of the breeze!"... "Faculty for bringing off the unexpected." I hoped that he wasn't going to disappoint me in the matter of bringing things to a showdown on his arrival in Sydney. But no.... My every instinct told me that he would not side-step that. So I made all preparations properly to receive "Slant" Allen, and, on the day of his triumphant home-coming, was waiting for him in my room at the Australia, as I have already told.

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