In the water-side taverns Robert Snow found the whaling men, jovial numbers of the big lean, brown fellows from Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, with the pipe in the mouth, the girl on the knee, and the pannikin of rum close at hand in the red lamplight. They talked love and whales with a salty tang on the tongue; and Van Diemen's Land meant no more to them than a good harbour for trying-out and a good place to drink and kiss in. There was a time, they said regretfully, when all the harbour was full of whales and every gentleman had his private whale-boat. But those good days were gone, and now sailormen were a long time at sea. …"And give us a kiss, lass, for soon we have to leave you."
Snow borrowed a lantern and went along the dark front by page 127the sucking water, seeking a place that Henny had spoken of. The harbour was full of the red and green riding-lights, but the rough streets were in darkness. In Davey Street a naphtha-lamp flared in the butcher's shop, and Snow wondered for the twentieth time why all through the country butchers' shops were the only beacons. A crudity almost ugly in its implications. He found the tavern at last, a low wooden place crusted with rime and canting drunkenly. Such, it seemed, was where the likes of Robert Snow must meet his kind while young Mab Comyn went up the hill to the great houses in their glowing gardens. He would be at the Sorley mansion to-night, perhaps take Julia Berry in to dinner. Robert Snow stooped his dark head to enter the dark little room and thought: If ever my time comes I'll settle with Mab Comyn.
The tap-room had wooden benches and men spat in the sawdust on the floor. Time-expired men, as Henny had said, with their smug talk and their long hair. Decent fellows, enough: small carpenters, grocers, gardeners, watermen, with little before them but that little their own. In a year Snow could be one of them; marry a daughter, and live an obscure hand-to-mouth life for the rest of his days. "But no one can interfere with us. At least we're free," they said.
They chilled Snow's hot blood with their cramped content. In a little he was on his feet in the sawdust, talking while they leaned against the dingy wall in the dim light, sucking their pipes.
"Aye?" said a greybeard. "Come from Clent, do 'ee? A proper old fam'ly theer. I worked for Cap'n once. He choosed me roight off the boat. He did so. Aye; ye're none so bad off if ye come from Clent."
"I want to be better off. Surely we all do. Why are we pariahs in this land which we have made? Why are not the clubs, the big houses, the hotels open to those of us who are free men? We have as good a right there as anyone."
"The quality don't think so," said a young carpenter with keen eyes and long hands that he clasped and unclasped. He was caught, and Snow turned on him. He was a recruit.
"We could make them think it if we chose. We are the majority. Soon we'll be more so, with the military being with-page 128drawn all the time. This country should be ours. It was meant in the first place for us, and the settlers have only got rich through our labour."
"Aye, rich. There's the rock we split on, sir," said a thin old fellow, craning a long neck. "It takes a mort o' money to teach folk to see aught."
"We could get the money. A little to start with and the rest would come." Robert Snow saw his Elysium as he talked. Almost he made the others see it. A land that was their own, with no chained and hunted man in the whole length of it. A land where they would walk with the gentry and not behind. Where understanding would be between them all, and a large mercy.
"And those who won't bow to the new idea can get out," said Snow, thinking of Mab Comyn. Mab, he thought, would starve sooner than sit at meat with him. But Mab did not know about Ellen. There was the trump card which Snow would play when he chose. A new kind of gratitude mixed with his affection for Ellen.
When again he went out into the windy night, he felt excitedly that he had done a little, paved an inch of the way. It would be slow, but he was inured to patience. Probably he would be a freed man long before the crisis came. But it would come, since down a myriad underground ways men would soon be talking, thinking. He had put a new idea in their dull heads, and it would go on … go on … He knew how messages, information could go through the most closely watched chaingang, despite the guards. "They can't chain our souls," he said.
In Davey Street two men stood together outside the office of Stock & Son, shippers and timber merchants. The younger carried a candle shaded with his hand, and in the flickering light Snow saw that the other was James Sorley—the great Councillor Sorley—the governor's right hand. Snow stopped on the edge of the dark when young George Stock cried out: "We're ruined, sir! Clean ruined."
"Kindly elucidate," said James Sorley, in his dry tones; and then Snow, now listening keenly, heard something which he would not have missed for worlds.
Stock & Son, it appeared, would not be the only folk ruined page 129in this great speculation of the Californian goldfields where men had been clamouring for food, food at any price so that it came soon. Most of this year's wheat had gone from the colony to San Francisco. Blackwood and swamp gum for shorings had followed, and now at the American end organization had utterly broken down. Wharves and streets, said young George, were piled with valuable Australian cargo delivered over to the rats, the rain, and thieves. There were no agents available to distribute or control.
"I assure you, sir, that it is quite impossible to get invoice returns or payments. Nothing can cope with such a tremendous influx of men. My brother Alec returned yesterday by the Pardon. His health is completely destroyed by the hardships…. I apologize for troubling you with personal matters …"
His voice died in the fitful wind. James Sorley stood, his thin rigid body like a post. He said at last: "Then you can get me no payments whatever? For neither timber nor grain?"
"Not you nor anyone, sir; and you'll find every shipper in the country say the same. What can we do? No organization, and rapid deterioration all the time."
"Very well. This, of course, is in confidence. We can keep our heads above water if no one knows we are hit. Good night."
James Sorley passed on with his slow, pompous step, and the young man went back with the guttering candle into the store. But Robert Snow, going up the street to the shanty where he was lodged, found his head whirling. Scarcely a settler in the land but would suffer more or less, and times were hard anyway. Some would be walking off their runs before long; and then the freed men would walk on. And once they had the land … I must make Ellen see reason now, he thought. When I get back, to-morrow.
To-morrow Mab Comyn sent for him early. He was in Oliver's room at the fashionable Albion, frowning from a heap of bouquets in paper frills to some boxes of fancy sweets. He said, not looking round: "Take this, and this. No; not that. Only roses, I want them carried at once to Mrs. Berry's cabin on the Tribunna."
"Any message, sir?"page 130
"No. I'll be down myself."
Snow went out with the things. Who would pay for them, with all the Captain's grain rotting on the wharf at San Francisco? This gay young buck would be looking a shade less debonair and genteel before long.
On the Tribunna he waited for Julia, who came with Mab just before the gangway was drawn. She was veiled and went straight down to her cabin while Mab turned to Snow. But he was hardly thinking of the man, for Julia had cried last night, saying that she would never see him again. "Or you must never see Berry again," said Mab. But that had frightened her, and she sent him away, to find him at her door again the next morning. And now she was going, back to the man and her two round-eyed babies; and Mab told himself he was better dead, and was keen enough to feel that the world had never known a tragedy like it. He said to Snow, abruptly: "I have lent you to Mrs. Berry. You will go down to Port Arthur with her to do some painting."
To the man who had already been there it was as though the word made some profound chemical change in him. He seemed to shrink, and sudden sweat stood on his face. He stammered: "Oh, no! Oh, please, sir! Oh, won't the Captain——"
"I'll arrange with the Captain. You hear? You are under Mrs. Berry's orders."
And then he was gone and the gangway up, and the Tribunna leaning to the light wind as she drew out into the river. But Robert Snow stood by the rail, staring. Everything had collapsed in him under the old fear. He saw nothing but the Dumb Cell at Port Arthur.