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March 02 , 2010

Hell's Hatches (Illustrated)


"Slant" Allen and I, between us, had been monopolizing a good share of the feature space in the Queensland and New South Wales papers for a week or more—he as "the Hero-Ticket-of-Leave-Man" and I as "the gifted Franco-American painter whose brilliant South Sea marines have taken the Australian art world by storm"—and now that it was definitely reported that he had left Brisbane on his way to connect with the reception the boyhood home from which he had been shipped in disgrace five years before had prepared for him, I knew it was but a matter of hours before he would be doing me the honour of a call.

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He simply had to see me, I figured; that was all there was to it: for with Bell and the girl dead (that much seemed certain, both from the newspaper accounts of the affair and from what I had been able to pick up in the few minutes I had been ashore during the stop of my southbound packet at Townsville) I was the only living person who knew he was not the hero of the astonishing Cora Andrews affair, the audacious daring and almost sublime courage characterizing which had touched the imagination of the whole world; that, far from having volunteered to navigate a shipload of plague-stricken blacks through some hundreds of miles [pg 2]of the worst reef-beset—and likewise the most ill-charted—waters of the Seven Seas on the off chance of saving the lives of perhaps one in ten of them, he had been brought off and forced to mount the gangway of that ill-fated schooner at the point of a knife in the hands of a slender slip of a Kanaka girl.

To be sure, two or three of the blacks who were hanging over the rail at the end of that accursed afternoon may have been among the survivors (for it could have been only the strongest of them that had been able to fight their way up to the air when Bell chopped open the hatches they had been battened under ever since the Cora's officers had succumbed who knows how many hours before); but, even so, their rolling, bloodshot eyes could have fixed on nothing to have led them to believe that the greasy shawl of Chinese embroidery the girl appeared to have thrown affectionately over the shoulder of the belated passenger in the leaking outrigger concealed the diminutive Malay kris whose point she was pressing into the fleshy part of his neck above the jugular.

No, there could be no doubt that I was all that stood between "Slant" Allen, "Ticket-of-Leavester," beachcomber, black-birder, pearl-pirate and (more or less incidentally to all of the foregoing) murderer, and the Hon. Hartley Allen, second son of the late James Allen, Bart., racing man, polo player and once the greatest gentleman jockey on the Australian turf. Pardon for the comparative peccadilloes—a "pulled" horse or two, a money fraud in connection with a "sweep," and the rather rough treatment of a chorus girl, who had foolishly asked for "time to consider" his proposal that she come to him at once from the Queensland stockman who was only just finishing refurnishing her George Street flat—which, [pg 3]cumulatively, had been responsible for his being packed off to "The Islands," was already assured, and it looked as though more was to come—that his "spectacular and self-sacrificing heroism" was going to wipe out the unpleasant memories that had barred him from sporting and social circles even before the law stepped in. A sporting writer in that morning's Herald had speculated as to whether or not he would be seen again riding "Number 1" for the unbeaten "Boomerang" Four, with whom he had qualified for his handicap of "8," still standing as the highest ever given an Australian polo player; and the racing column of the latest Bulletin had devoted a good part of its restricted space to a discussion of the possibility that the weight he had put on in his years of "easy life in 'The Islands'" might force him to confine his riding to steeplechases. Of the record which had made the name of "Slant" Allen a byword for all that was desperate and devilish from Port Moresby to Papeete, from Yap to Suva, little seemed to be known and nothing at all was said. But then, that old beach-combers' maxim to the effect that "What a man does in 'The Islands' don't figure in St. Peter's 'dope sheet,'" was one from which even I myself had been wont to extract no little solace.

With nothing but my fever-wracked and absinthe-soaked (I may as well confess at the outset that I was "in the grip of the green" at this time) anatomy standing between, on the one hand, and Allen more despicable than even I, who was fairly familiar with the lurid swath he had cut across Polynesia, had ever dreamed he could be, and, on the other hand, an Allen who might easily become more the idol of sporting (which is, of course, the real) Australia than he had ever been at the zenith of his meteoric career as a turfman and [pg 4]athlete, it was plain enough that he would not—nay, could not—ignore for long my presence in a city that was standing on tiptoe to acclaim him as a native son whose deed had done it honour in the eyes of the world. It was something like that the Telegraph had it, I believe.

Where a word from me (and Allen would know that my friendship for Bell, to say nothing of the girl, would impel me to speak it in my own good time) would dash him from the heights to depths which even he had not yet sounded—there were degrees of treachery which "The Islands" themselves would not stand for—it was only to be expected that a man of his stamp would make some well-thought-out move calculated to impose both immediate and eventual silence upon me. If we were still "north of twenty-two" I would have had no doubt what form that "move" would take, and even here in the heart of the Antipodean metropolis—well, that I was leaving no unnecessary loop-holes of attack open was attested by the fact that I was awaiting his coming wearing a roomy old shooting jacket, in the wide pockets of which a man's fingers could work both freely and unobtrusively. I had shot away a good half-dozen patch pockets from that old jacket in practising "unostentatious self-defence," and when a man gets to a point where he can spatter a sea-slug at five paces from his hip he really hasn't a great deal to fear from the frontal attack of anyone—or anything—that hunts by daylight.

Yes, though I hardly expected to have to shoot Allen, at least on this first showdown, I was quite prepared to do so if he gave me any excuse at all for it; indeed, I may as well admit that I was going to be disappointed if he did not furnish me such an excuse. There need be nothing on my conscience, that was sure, for, if the [pg 5]fellow had had his deserts according to civilized law, he would have been put out of the way something like twenty times already. I had heard him make that boast himself one night in Kai, just before he went under Jackson's table as a consequence of trying to toss off three-fingers of "Three Star" for every man he claimed to have killed. Moreover, I had a sort of a feeling that old Bell would have liked to have seen his score evened up that way, for he, more than almost anyone I could recall, had marvelled at what he called the tricks I had tucked away in my "starboard trigger pocket." But—I may as well own it—my principal reason for hoping for a decisive showdown straightaway was that I felt sure I could see my way through an affair of that kind, even with so cool and resourceful a hand as I knew Allen to be. As an absinthe drinker, what I dreaded was to have the crisis postponed, knowing all the while that during only about from four to six hours of the twenty-four would I be fit in mind or body to oppose a child, let alone a man who, for five years and among as desperate a lot of cut-throats as the South Pacific had ever known, had lived up to his boast that he drew the line at no act under heaven to gain his end.

It had struck me as just a bit providential that Allen almost certainly would be coming to see me in the early afternoon—the very time at which, physically and mentally, I would be best prepared for him. It varies somewhat with different addicts of the drug, but with me the "hour of strength"—the interval of the swinging back of the pendulum, when all the faculties are as much above normal as they have been below it during the preceding interval of depression—was mid-afternoon. From about ten in the morning I was just about my natural self—just about at the turn of the tide between weakness [pg 6]and strength—for three or four hours; but from about three to five, when the renewed cravings began to stir and it had long been my custom to pour my first thin trickle of green into the cracked ice, I was preternaturally alive in hand and brain. The rigorous restriction of my painting to these brief hours of physical and spiritual exaltation must share with my colours the credit for the fact that I had already done work that was to win me a niche distinctively my own as a painter of tropical marines. How much absinthe—or the reaction from absinthe—had to do with my earlier successes was conclusively proven by the way my work at first fell off when those colourful years I was later to spend with the incomparable Huntley Rivers in the Samoas and Marquesas began to bring me back manhood of mind and body and to rid me—I trust for good and all—of the curse saddled upon me in my student days in Paris. But that is neither here nor there as regards the present story.

I had ascertained that Allen's train was to arrive from Brisbane at ten in the morning, and that he was to be taken directly from the station to the Town Hall to receive the "Freedom of the City." Then, out of consideration for the fact "that the hero" (as the Herald had it) was "still far from recovered from the terrible hardships he had endured as a consequence of his unparalleled self-sacrifice," the remainder of the day was to be left at his disposal to rest in. The further program—in which His Excellency the Governor-General himself was to take part—would be arranged only after the personal desires of the "modest hero" had been consulted.

A 'phone to the gallery where my Exhibition was on—or an inquiry of almost anyone connected with the [pg 7]show at the Town Hall, for that matter—would apprise Allen that I was staying at the Australia, and there I knew he would come direct the moment he could shake himself free from his entertainers. Someone was to take him off to lunch, to be sure, but—especially as it was reported that he was already dieting to get back to riding weight—I felt sure this would not detain him long. "It will be about three," I told myself, and left word at the office that any man asking for me around that hour should be brought straight to my rooms without further question. I also 'phoned Lady X—— and begged off from showing her and a party of friends from Government House my pictures at four, as I had promised a couple of days previously. Being borne off to the inevitable and interminable Australian afternoon teas—or to anything else I could not easily shake myself free from very shortly after five—was one of the worst ordeals incident to the spell of lionizing that had set in for me from the day of my arrival in Sydney. What did I care for Sydney, anyhow? Paris was my goal—gay, cynical, heartless Paris, who took or rejected what her lovers laid at her feet only as it stirred, or failed to stir, her jaded pulses, asking not how it was made or what it had cost. Paris! To bring that languid beauty fawning to my own feet for a day—even for an hour, my hour—thatwould be something worth living—or dying—for. For many years I had been telling myself that (between three and five in the afternoon, of course) and now—quite aside from my nocturnal flights there on the wings of the "Green Lady"—it seemed that the end so long striven for was almost in sight.

I lunched lightly—a planked red snapper and a couple of alligator pears—in my room, and toward two o'clock (to be well on the safe side) slipped into the old hunting [pg 8]jacket I have mentioned, and was ready; just that—ready. My nerves were absolutely steady. The hand holding the palette knife with which (to kill the passing minutes) I began daubing pigments upon a rough rectangle of blotched canvas on an easel in the embrasure of the windows, might have adjusted the hair-spring of my wrist-watch, and the beat of my heart was slow and strong and steady like the throb of the engines of a liner in mid-ocean. If either hand or nerve inclined more one way than the other, it was toward relaxation rather than tenseness. Tenseness—with a man who has himself in hand—is for the moment of action, not for the interval of waiting which precedes it. My whole feeling was that of complete adequacy; but then, the sensation was no new one to me—at that time of day.

Exhausting the gobs of variegated colour on my palette, I went to a table in the bathroom and started chipping the delicately tinted linings from the contents of a packing case of assorted sea shells, confining my attentions for the moment to a species of bivalve whose refulgent inner surface had caught and held the lambent liquid gold of sunshine that had filtered through five fathoms of limpid sea-water to reach the coral caverns where it had grown. Powdering the coruscant scalings in a mortar, I screened them from time to time, carefully noting the gradations of colour—ranging from soft fawn to scintillant saffron—as the more indurated particles stood out the longer against the friction of the pestle. At this time, I might explain, I was in the tentative stage of my experimentation to evolve and perfect a greater variety of media than had hitherto been available with which to express in colour the interminable moods of sea and sky and sunshine. The value of my contribution to art—not yet complete after five [pg 9]years—will have to be judged when I pass it on to my contemporaries and posterity. Of the part these colours played in my later and more permanent success (to differentiate it from the spectacular but transient spell of fame upon the threshold of which I stood at the moment of which I write), I can only say that had I been confined to the pigments with which my predecessors had been forced to express themselves, I should never have risen above the rating of a second or third class dauber of sea-scapes.

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