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   Chapter 12 A BAD MAN'S PLEA

Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 21339

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

The expression of nervous anxiety I had noticed several times since he came was on Allen's face again as he started to speak. "It's a queer enough proposition," he began. "You see, it's like ..." He hesitated, stopped, got up and walked to the window, where he stood for a few moments, frowning and biting the end of his cheroot. Suddenly he turned to me with: "Whitney, what do you say to a bit of a turn in the fresh air? I've been talking more than I'm used to, and this stuffy room of yours is getting on my nerves. We might walk out through the gardens to the Domain. I can tell you all that I have to tell out there."

I did not need to look at my watch to know that it was getting on toward five o'clock. Only the absorbing interest of Allen's narrative had prevented my becoming conscious of that fact before. My own nerves were less under control now, and the inevitable end-of-the-afternoon restlessness was surging strong upon me. But I was anxious to hear Allen out, and no reason occurred to me why it should not be in the open air. If there was any decision to be arrived at, that could be made on the morrow, or whenever I felt up to it.

"Right-o, Allen," I cried; "I'll be glad to get out myself. I shall want to be back in about half an hour though."

I was grateful for his restraint in not greeting that last with an indulgent smile, for I knew that he fully understood what it was that focussed my interest upon five o'clock. It was very evident that the man had retained all the finer instincts of a gentleman, little opportunity that he had had to exercise them in the last five years.

I got my hat and stick, and, feeling sure I would have no use for them, put both the revolver and the automatic pistol into the drawer of the table upon which they had been lying. I was rather glad of the chance to show Allen that I had confidence in him to that extent anyhow.

Anxious to avoid recognition, Allen pulled on a pair of dark spectacles and drew the brim of his Panama low down over his forehead. Turning out of crowded Pitt Street, he removed the spectacles, and as we passed the entrance of the Botanical Gardens took off his hat and fanned his brow with it as he walked. He had not spoken so far, but with the deep breath he inhaled as he felt the springy turf underfoot his restraint passed from him.

"It's a great relief to get clear of those damn walls and pavements," he said fervently, opening his coat to let the cool breath from the Bay strike his chest. "I can't get used to them again. I've been free of them too long now. But I'm finished with them for good, I hope." Then, as we came out upon a broad path: "Bear away to the left, if you don't mind. I want to take a squint at that bunch of palms as we pass."

As we came abreast of a big bed packed with a riot of dense tropical growths, he pulled up and appeared to be searching for something. "Ah, there she is!" he ejaculated presently, and pushed in close to a queer little dwarf palm, which straggled drunkenly on a half-dozen spindling legs set something like those of a camera tripod. Pulling up the stamped metal marker, he gave it a quick glance and then handed it to me with a grin. "The fruits of my first and only dip into botanical research," he remarked. "What do you think of it?"

"Pandanus Bensoni Allensis," I read in large letters, and below: "Habitat: Portuguese Timor. Very rare. The only other catalogued specimen is in the Royal Dutch Gardens at Buitenzorg, Java."

"So that Allensis stands for you, does it?" I said, not a little impressed, as I handed him back the metal disc. Then added: "And racing and polo cups weren't the only objects you collected."

"The merest accident," he replied. "I had always liked plants and flowers, ever since my nurse used to wheel me down this very walk in my pram. I suppose that gave me an interest in the tropical growths of the Islands, after they packed me off there. I thought this little fellow looked a bit on the unusual when I chanced upon it one morning in a low valley back of Deli; so I dug it up and shipped it to Sydney direct on the China Line steamer, which touches in there. It turned out to be a real find. Benson of Kew Gardens, the great authority on tropical palms, described it, and tacked my name on as the discoverer. The old cove's letter contained the only kind words addressed to me from the outside world in the last five years. And now look at them ..."

I had come to expect that note of bitterness in Allen's voice every time he spoke of the past, and especially of his "transportation" to the Islands. He evidently thought that he had been badly treated; too badly for even the present wave of frantic adulation to make atonement. He was through with it for good. Several little things he had let drop indicated that.

The incident of the palm was interesting in throwing an illuminative crosslight on the gentler human side of a man who had generally been rated as without either gentleness or humanity. So, also, was the very evident appeal to Allen's sense of natural beauty made by the matchless panorama of the Bay as it unfolded to us from the far end of the point.

We had skirted the Naval anchorage of Farm Cove, picked our way along the path below the ledges where benighted "sundowners" were wont to boil their "billys" and spread their "blueys" in the shallow wave-worn caves, and climbed up through the gums to the rocky lookout on the outermost tip of the sharply-jutting point. The clocks in the town behind us began chiming the quarters heralding the hour of five, and presently, on the first of the heavier strokes, the flotilla of trans-bay ferry-boats slid from their slips at the inner curve of the horseshoe of the Circular Quay and "fanned" out on their divergent courses to points on the opposite side of Port Jackson.

"That sight has never failed to quicken my pulses from the time I used to wait and watch for it as a kid down to today," Allen said with almost a thrill in his voice. "It is the one picture that has remained clearest in my mind all these years I've been-shut out from it. Did you ever read Henry Lawson's lines to 'Sydney-Side,' written from somewhere in the West, I believe? Something like this they go:

"'Oh, there never dawned a morning in the long and lonely days,

But I thought I saw the ferries streaming out across the bays-

And as fresh and fair in fancy did the picture rise again

As the sunrise flushed the city from Woollahra to Balmain:

"'And the sunny water frothing round the liners black and red,

And the coastal schooners working by the loom of Bradley's Head;

And the whistles and the sirens that re-echo far and wide

All the light and life and beauty that belong to Sydney-Side.'"

"A sentimentalist, too," I muttered to myself, the surprise of that revelation checking for a few moments the rising tide of my absinthe-hunger.

Allen led the way back to where a flat ledge of rock made a rough natural seat. "'Lady Macquarie's Chair,'" he explained, motioning me to sit down. "Named from the wife of a former Governor who was supposed to slip away out here and enjoy the view. The Domain runs right back behind the Government House, you know. I always used to mooch along out here for a look-see every time I got a chance, partly for the fine prospect of the Bay and partly for the comprehensive visualization it permitted of what I might call 'The Rise and Fall of the House of Allen.'

"Haven't you an expression in the States to the effect that it's 'three generations from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves'? Well, here in Australia we put the same natural law of evolution in the form of a conundrum and answer. It goes: 'How long does it take for an arrow to become a boomerang?' The answer varies, but for the 'House of Allen' it is: 'Four generations.'

"The arrow, you understand, is the 'Broad Arrow' that marked the transported convicts, while the boomerang merely suggests something that rises, circles and returns to the point of departure. Well, from this place where we sit I can trace the full circle of the 'arrow-cum boomerang-cum arrow' of the Allen quiver. Look! I'll show you. Follow me closely.

"Over there," he said, pointing seaward and easterly, "are the Heads, in through which sailed the brig bearing Jim (alias 'Crab') Allen, convict, with a few hundred more of the scum of London, to the shores of Australia. That is, I've always liked to fancy my distinguished progenitor sailed in through the Heads, though it's quite possible that the brig beat around into Botany Bay direct. Now" (he pointed westerly to where the Paramatta wound out of sight between green hills) "at the end of that deep cove over there is the slaughter house where the convict's son, James Allen, dealt in hides and hoofs and horns and laid the foundation of the family fortune, the fortune that wasn't seriously dented when the convict's grandson gave a hundred thousand pounds to a drought-relief fund and drew down a Baronetcy. That big red-brick pile among the trees on Darling Point" (Allen was pointing east again) "is the mansion of the late Sir James Allen, Bart., and now owned by his eldest son, the New South Wales Agent in London. Old Sir James' second son, Hartley, was born in the south wing of that unsightly heap of red bricks.

"And here" (this time he turned and pointed south where a sharp dagger-blade of inlet plunged deep into the heart of Sydney's lowest slums) "is Wooloomooloo, where young Hartley Allen, descending from the soft refinements of Darling Point, found his level, organized his own 'push' of rock-throwing, head-smashing larrikins and completed the social circle. The cycle of metamorphosis had begun its round. I was the throwback, Whitney. Old 'Crab' Allen, the transported convict of Houndsditch, lived again in young Hartley Allen, whom most people thought of as a racing man and polo player, but who had all the natural qualifications of an out-and-out crook.

"I can trace all of my little moral obliquities, Whitney, back to old 'Crab,' and, everything considered, I think he would rate me as rather a credit to his name, whatever contempt he might have had for my comparatively law-abiding father and grandfather, to say nothing of my pillar-of-the-state elder brother. 'Crab' was transported as a consequence of his persistent disregard of his fellow townsmen's rights to their lives, wives and silver plate. I-well, I never did care much for silver plate."

All this would have been intensely interesting to me an hour earlier, but now the fervour of my longing for my "solitude à trois" (as I was wont to call

my séance with the long green bottle and the glass of cracked ice) was getting beyond control. The flowing lines of the reaches of cove and inlet glowing in the slanting light of the declining sun were becoming jerky and jagged and intershot with dazzling little spurts of light like one thinks he sees after receiving a crack on the head. The evening breeze lapped clammily about my chest and I fumbled clumsily with the buttons of my coat, trying to shut out the chill.

"I ought to have been back at the hotel before this," I mumbled, getting to my feet. "You had something more to tell me, hadn't you? You can do it as we walk back. I've got to be going now."

By this time I wasn't in a state to observe things very carefully. Undoubtedly (as I've thought it over since) Allen had been stalling to gain time and screw his nerve up to advancing the plan he had in mind. This being so, it must have jarred him a bit to have me call the turn so suddenly. I don't remember whether his face showed consternation or not. The one thing I recall was the quick movement of his hand to that hump on his right hip.

I did not recoil an inch. I am sure of that, for I felt no apprehension. I was beyond apprehension-save over delay. But Allen's hand came back empty. "I'll tell you at once," he said brokenly. "But please sit down. Don't go just yet. We'll have to come to a decision straightaway." Then, seeing I was turning to go: "It's just this: Rona wants you to paint her picture-on the schooner-the Cora. Wants a picture done of the whole layout-ship, Bell, her, me, Ranga, niggers, everything. Says she'll pose for it on the schooner. Says I must pose too. Seems to be bitten with the idea of perpetuating the event for posterity, or something of the kind. Crazy scheme, but she's set her heart on it. Says when it's done, if she likes it, she may go back to the Islands with me. Nothing certain for me, but it's a chance and I've got to make the most of it. Will you do it, Whitney? She says you've always wanted to paint her picture, and now she's all for it. You won't turn it down, Whitney?"

The incongruity of "Slant" Allen in the r?le of a plaintive pleader struck me with scarcely less astonishment than his strange and unexpected request. I was, however, totally unfit to cogitate upon either just then.

"I'll think it over and let you know tomorrow," I said dully. "Got to go now."

"It has to be decided here and now, once and for all," Allen answered firmly. "Here!-" This time there was no hesitation in the movement of his hand to the hip-pocket hump. When it came back it was holding a fat stubby flask-one of the thermos type, just coming into general use at that time.

"I know what's calling you away, Whitney," he said steadily, unscrewing the top of the flask and pouring into it a bright green liquid with a familiar smell and sparkle. "On the off chance that we might be detained beyond the hour when you're used to depending upon it, I had this cooled at the Marble Bar-old hangout of mine-and brought it along with me. Don't use the stuff myself, but I know the hooks it throws into a man who does use it. Drink hearty!"

He handed me both the brimming screw-top and the flask itself. The contents of the former might have been drugged heavily enough to kill a horse for all I cared. It was absinthe beyond a doubt, and cold enough to frost the outside of the little nickled cup that held it. I gulped it down hungrily; replenished and repeated. The third cup I drank less greedily, letting my eyes rove slowly where the jerkily jagged zigzags of hill and headland and foreshore were smoothing into a softer fluency of contour. Sipping the fourth cup, I unbuttoned my coat to give more intimacy to the caress of the milk-warm evening breeze.

"Not bad stuff, Allen," I breathed at last. "Very good of you to think of it. What was it you wanted me to do just now?" Five minutes later I had promised to meet "Slant" Allen at the railway station in time to catch the nine-thirty train for Brisbane, en route Townsville.

It appeared that Rona's ultimatum had stipulated that Allen was to be back in Townsville with me, ready to begin arranging for the picture, inside of ten days. The only northbound boat, the Waga Tiri, which would arrive within the limit, had already left Sydney but could be overtaken at Brisbane by entraining at once. Allen had booked sleepers for the express and wired for cabins on the steamer before he called on me at the Australia. There was nothing left to do but throw together what things I wanted and get to the station.

It was rather a wrench, checking myself after getting all poised for flight with the "Green Lady," but not so hard as it would have been had I really "got off the ground." The contents of Allen's flask were hardly more than a strong bracer. Once I got back to the hotel and into my packing, it was easy going, especially as my enthusiasm was mounting for the work ahead. To have Rona for a model at last! And for such a picture!

The dramatic appeal of the thing grew on me with every passing minute. It was not, to be sure, quite the kind of a work I was best prepared to do. With my ambition to become a marine painter, I had gone in more for colour than for anatomy and drawing; but I was still confident that I could make good with anything that gripped my imagination strongly. And "The Saving of the Black-birder" (I had already given it a tentative name) fairly took me by the throat. I would not fail with it. Nay, more, I would triumph. Perhaps-why not?-Paris! Yes, "The Black-birder" should open a short-cut to my goal. The rails beneath the wheels of the speeding Brisbane Express were clicking black-bir-der-black-bir-der when I dropped off to sleep that night somewhere along toward the Queensland boundary.

That the morrow should bring some reaction from this fine frenzy was inevitable, but it was a comparatively slight one. That Allen had deliberately planned to draw me away and take advantage of my weakness for absinthe to gain my intervention in his favour was evident enough. Indeed, the consummate manner in which he turned the trick argued an almost pathological intimacy with the reaction of the insidiously subtle essence of wormwood upon the human brain. But I did not hold this heavily against him. It was plain that he had only done it to play safe in a matter respecting which he did not dare to take any unnecessary chances of failure. I could not but admit to myself that I would probably have fallen in with the plan ultimately in any event. There was no disloyalty to my friend in making him (as I intended to do) the central figure in a picture that I hoped would become famous in two hemispheres. On the contrary, what greater tribute was there I could pay to his memory? If Rona cared to flaunt that memory by going off to the Islands with Allen, it was her own kettle of fish. Besides, she had not gone yet; didn't even appear to have committed herself definitely in the matter.

To minimize explanations and the possibility of complications, Allen and I had agreed to defer wiring our Sydney friends of our departure until after we were aboard the Waga Tiri in Moreton Bay. His message to the Chairman of the Reception Committee, and mine to Benchley at my Exposition, went ashore on the tender that brought us off, and the steamer was under way before they could have been put upon the wires. It was not until the next northbound boat brought the Sydney papers to Townsville that we learned what a wave of surprise and speculation had been started by our joint hegira.

In the course of the voyage Allen told me some few further details of developments in Townsville. Before his departure he had managed to induce Rona, for her own comfort, to move her headquarters from Ratu Lal's joint to the Medical Mission of the London Bible Society. The head surgeon of the Mission he characterized as "a good old sport" he had knocked up against in the Straits and the Dutch Indies. He was just like an ordinary missionary to look at, but redeemed in "Slant's" eyes by a real love of horses, and even-very much on the quiet-a shrewd interest in racing. "It's in his blood. He can't help it," Allen explained laconically but comprehensively.

Explicit instructions had been left at the Mission that Rona was not to be worried about her spiritual future. She was to be just a "straight boarder" until Allen's return. She was well provided with money, as he had seen to having everything Bell had with him at the time of his death deposited to her account at a local bank. This had included eighty gold sovereigns, found in a money-belt around Bell's waist, and some hundreds of Chilean silver pesos he had brought off to the Cora in a canvas sack.

Ranga had been put up at the Sailors' Home. There had been a flat refusal to receive him at first, on account of his colour, but this was promptly withdrawn when it was found the request came from Allen, whom the town was going pretty strong on delighting to honour just at that juncture. Allen, who seemed very fond of the big fellow, also saw that the latter was comfortably provided with money.

Allen did not speak again of the proposed picture until the steamer was nosing up to her buoy in Cleveland Bay. Then, after inquiring if I had everything I needed to go ahead with, he intimated that he would probably find Rona fretting to get things under way. "She seemed to have some wild sort of an idea," he said, "that the whole thing would be done on the schooner-that we all might move out there, bag and baggage, and make it our head-quarters until the picture was completed. She even wanted me to go out to that plague-rotten wreck with her and look the ground over before I left. I had no time for it, of course, and am jolly glad I didn't. Can't see what the good of it would have been anyhow. I was hoping I had seen the last of the damned hulk, though I suppose I can stick it for an hour or two in a pinch. I fail to see what she's driving at, but whatever it is you may as well make up your mind that she will have her way about it."

I assured him that the picture would probably be mostly studio work as far as he was concerned, though I myself might want to sketch a few details on the schooner. It might save time, however, I suggested, if the whole lot of us went aboard before I began work so I could figure out a tentative grouping and get a general idea of the composition. Then I could make notes and sketches of whatever parts of the schooner would be included, and be ready to work on the individual figures as soon as I rigged up a studio.

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