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Man Alone

Chapter XVII

page 172

Chapter XVII

Johnson had some difficulty in finding Petersen at first. He had moved from the little suburb where he had last heard of him as living and gone some miles out towards the coast. Petersen seemed to have paid all his bills before leaving so that no one knew his address and Johnson did not want to make himself too conspicuous in inquiring after him. In the end he waited and asked the postman, who was able to tell him. He walked out then to the coast, following the directions that were given him, and found Petersen's cottage on a point overlooking a deserted bay. It was a trim little white-painted two-roomed cottage with a neat garden and paths paved with shells, and a flag-staff mounted on the little lawn in front. There was no one at home and Johnson sat on the front steps to wait. The first real sunshine of the new summer was warming the hills and sea. From where he sat he could see the islands of the gulf and the trail of smoke from shipping northwards and eastwards coming down to port. The islands near at hand were in grass and green with spring, farther off they went blue into the distance, bush-covered and misty. One or two small boats and a grey-sailed fishing smack close below him were going up towards the port, leaning to the light westerly wind. The wind came from behind him, wrinkling the blue-green water below.

He waited there nearly an hour before he saw Petersen coming up the steep path from the bay. He did not look to have changed at all except that, when he came nearer, his hair and bristled eyebrows seemed to have gone a little whiter. He walked as carefully and solidly as he had always done. His skin was as brown and clear as it had page 173 ever been. He recognized Johnson as soon as he came near him. He said:

‘Hello, Johnson, what can I do for you?’ and without waiting for an answer: ‘I was hearing of you being in trouble.’

‘That's right,’ Johnson said.

‘Well, come on in, don't sit out here. The door was open wasn't it? We'll have some tea. I wasn't looking to see you around here.’

Johnson followed him in, thinking perhaps the old captain had grown more garrulous from lack of company, but he did not talk while he was moving around poking up the fire in the range and boiling the kettle. The inside of the cottage was as pleasantly dirty and untidy as the cabin on the scow had been and smelled in the same way of fish. Not till they had sat over tea and bread and butter and home-made fish-paste did Petersen ask for his story. Johnson told it without detail.

‘Well, I wouldn't ever 'a taken you on my ship,’ Petersen said, with strong disfavour, ‘if I'd 'a known you were that kind of fellow, messing around with Maori girls and other men's wives. Didn't you see enough of them up north with me?’

‘I've seen enough of them now,’ Johnson said.

‘Well, maybe you never had a chance up north with Tom Blake about. He was smarter than you or me with the girls.’

This was funny to Johnson.

‘I don't like it,’ Petersen said, ‘not you seeing her again. Last night was it?’

‘Last night it was. It ought to be all right.’

‘It probably won't be. One of those two women is bound to talk.’

page 174

They had their feet up on either side of the stove and Petersen, smoking his pipe, paused to spit accurately into the narrow enclosure of the grate.

‘What d'you want now?’ he asked.

‘I want to get out. I want a berth on a ship.’

‘It might be done. It isn't easy, not if you're not a union man. It wouldn't be easy at all if they start looking for you.’

‘They're not looking for me. They think I'm dead.’

‘You damn nearly were as far as I can see.’ He smoked on in silence for a time.

Then he said: ‘Where d'you want to get to?’

‘I don't mind – Sydney – San Francisco. Not one of the home lines.’

‘You're right there. Sydney'd be easiest for you. What you want me to do about it?’

‘I thought you might help me to a berth.’

‘I don't know many of these fellows now. I'm out of things.’ He re-lit his pipe, then shot a glance sideways at Johnson, straightening out his legs. ‘I'll see what I can do,’ he said.


‘Don't thank me. I wouldn't do it for most fellows in your position, only I think you're all right, Johnson. You just made a mistake.’

‘I made a mistake all right.’

‘Getting mixed up with a married Maori woman, the hell. Did you go to bed with her?’

‘I told you that – yes.’

‘What was it like?’

‘It wasn't anything special.’

‘It was a hell of a thing to do. You better stay on here and keep out of sight. There ain't many people come around here, but you'd better not be seen.’

page 175

Johnson spent the early evening helping him coil and rig fishing lines and they went down together to the bay when night came on and laid them at low tide Petersen went into town the next morning to see what he could do for Johnson. He dressed himself up laboriously and badtemperedly in his one city suit of navy blue and went to catch a bus. Johnson stayed indoors. There was only one visitor during the day – a baker, who knocked and, when there was no answer, left a loaf on the door-step. It was a wild, squally day. The westerly wind that had been gentle the day before, had risen, and drove gusts of wind with showers of rain against the cottage and down over the bay. Johnson, looking out from the window, saw the waters darken and the horizon of sea and islands shortened with a mist of driving spray. He saw a red-funnelled steamer going out from the harbour and watched it point out to sea; he watched it until the hull and red funnel went down over the horizon and only the trail of its smoke was left as it went out eastwards across the Pacific. He felt caged and unhappy inside the cottage.

Petersen did not come back until early evening. When he came he brought with him another man, who followed him into the back room of the cottage and was not introduced to Johnson. Petersen had an evening paper in his hand which he waved at Johnson. He did not say anything at first, but grunted and scowled, sitting down to take off his boots and easing his feet luxuriously. Then he said, shaking the paper:

‘This is bloody fine, Johnson. It says here you been seen again.’

Johnson stood looking from one to the other.

‘Who's this?’ he asked, with a jerk of his head to the stranger. He was a little wrinkled man, not more than sixty, with a sharp pointed beard. He looked at Johnson page 176 curiously, as if he were something odd that had not come into his experience before.

‘It's all right,’ Petersen said. ‘It's Brown, Captain Brown, a friend of mine. I brought him here to see if he could help you. But what about this?’ and he shook the paper again.

Johnson took it from him and read the half column that it gave him. It had a photograph of him that he recognized as an old snapshot and a description that sounded oddly unreal, and a report that he had been seen in Hamilton.

He gave the paper back to Petersen.

‘It's that Rua's sister-in-law,’ he said.

‘I don't care who it is,’ the old man was angry. ‘I don't care which one of your whores gets you into trouble only I don't want any part of it.’

‘All right,’ Johnson said. ‘I'll go. I'll leave tonight.’

‘You needn't be in such a bloody hurry,’ Petersen said, and spat on the floor as if ashamedly. ‘Only the sooner I get you out of this mess and out of the country the better pleased I'll be. Did anyone see you coming here?’

‘Not that I know of. I had to ask a postman your address where you lived before.’

‘Well, you were a bloody fool.’ Petersen's eyebrows bristled at each turn of his anger. ‘We'll have to get you out quick,’ he said.

Brown, all this time, had been studying Johnson with a curious impersonal interest that irritated him. It was as if he were inspecting a murderer that was about to be arrested and hanged. Johnson turned away from them both and got them supper, and after the meal they sat round the table and discussed ways and means. Brown and Petersen ran over the list of ships in port and argued about men on them and approaches that might be worth page 177 trying. Johnson himself barely listened to them. He was full of resentment against these two older men and inclined to regard his own chances of escape impersonally.

But he felt something of remorse the next morning when he watched Petersen dressing himself up again to go into town. He felt, too, the uselessness of apologizing for the trouble he was causing and instead made breakfast for him and spent the day cleaning the house, realizing, as he did it, that Petersen probably would not notice what he did, and if he did notice it, probably wouldn't like it. Petersen came back with Brown again about the same time in the evening.

‘I think we got you a ship,’ Brown said.

‘You're in a bloody fine mess,’ Petersen said, with grim satisfaction. ‘I think they're watching the wharves for you. You been out today?’


‘Well the paper says you've been seen in two different places. There's nothing this country likes better than a good man-hunt.’

Johnson said: ‘What's the berth?’

‘On an oil tanker,’ Brown said. ‘The Stamboulos.’

‘The what is it?’

‘The Stamboulos. It's a Greek ship.’

‘It's an odd name.’

‘It's an odd ship. It's just a lot of flat-iron plating. You got to get on board tonight. She sails at dawn tomorrow.’

They sat round the table as they had on the previous evening and Johnson made tea. Over tea, Petersen said suddenly:

‘You got any money, Johnson?’

‘You know I haven't. I've just got a few shillings.’

‘That's awkward,’ Petersen said. ‘This Italian wants fifty pounds.’

page 178

‘He's not an Italian,’ Brown cut in. ‘He's a Greek.’

‘He looked like an Italian to me.’

‘His name's Nikopolos. He's a Greek. I've seen lots of them.’

‘What's he want fifty pounds for?’ Johnson asked. ‘I'll work my passage, won't I?’

‘You'll work your passage all right,’ Petersen said. ‘The trouble is we had to tell him you wanted to get out of the country quiet. He'll take fifty pounds to keep his mouth shut.’

‘Will he keep it shut then?’

‘I don't know. He may do.’

‘Does he know who I am?’

‘He doesn't yet. He may guess when he sees you.’

‘I haven't got fifty pounds anyway,’ Johnson said.

Petersen looked at Brown as if for guidance. He pushed aside his cup and filled his pipe methodically, paring the black tobacco first with a pocket-knife into the palm of his hand, kneading it about with the fingers of his right hand, and then pressing it firmly into the bowl. When it was alight he turned and spat sideways into the fireplace. Then he said:

‘I can lend you fifty pounds if I'll get it back.’

‘It'll take me a long time to earn fifty pounds these days,’ Johnson said.

‘I want it back. Fifty pounds is a lot of money to me. Haven't you got any family in England would send you fifty pounds if they knew you wanted it bad enough?’

‘I've got one brother.’

‘What's he do?’

‘He's got a bicycle shop in Aylesbury.’

‘Where's Aylesbury?’

‘It's in England.’

‘Has he got fifty pounds?’

page 179

‘He ought to have. I haven't heard from him for three years.’

Brown sat without saying anything, but watching intently. He did not smoke. Petersen leant forward, emphasizing his points with the stem of his pipe. He said:

‘You write this brother of yours a letter. You write to him now. Tell him you're in a bloody mess and you want fifty pounds, and tell him to send it to me. I can't wait for you to earn it. Your brother can wait. Anyway they might catch you and I'd never see it. I can't afford that. So you write the letter now before you leave here.’

Brown chuckled. He was watching Johnson all the time. ‘That's fair enough,’ he said.

Johnson took the pen and paper that Petersen found for him and sat down at the table to write the letter. It was a long time since he had held a pen and he formed the letters shakily. He had difficulty in remembering his brother's address. He had written three lines of the letter when a thought occurred to him and he looked up to Petersen.

‘If I've got to go aboard tonight,’ he said, ‘how are you going to get the money?’

‘I drew it this afternoon,’ Petersen said. ‘I've got it here.’

Johnson went on with the letter. When he had finished Petersen read it over and, sealing it up, put it away in his pocket.

‘I'll post this myself,’ he said. ‘I'm going to sail you up and put you aboard tonight. I don't want you going through the town.’

‘If you're lucky,’ Brown said, ‘you'll be off the Barrier by tomorrow morning. You'll be away out at sea by night.’

‘These ships all carry wireless,’ Petersen said sourly. ‘They got to nowadays.’

‘Where's this Stamboulos going to?’ Johnson asked.

page 180

‘Panama,’ Brown said.

‘That's a hell of a place to go to.’

‘It ought to suit you,’ Petersen said. ‘It's full of coloured women.’

‘You can get a ship on to the Indies and home,’ Brown said.

Petersen said: ‘This Nikopolos had a berth 'cause one of his men died here of typhoid. You got his berth’

‘That's nice,’ Johnson said.

‘It's not so bad. It might 'a been smallpox. You won't like this Nikopolos much.’

‘I don't expect to.’

‘He's a Greek. He's no good. You better give him twenty-five down and sleep with the rest in your socks till you get ashore somewhere. Then you could hand it to him. You better give him some other name. We didn't tell him one.’

‘I said you were a fellow had trouble with his wife,’ Brown said.

‘Someone else's wife,’ Petersen said.

Johnson felt better now that there was a prospect of his getting away near at hand. He felt strength inside himself again. He did not mind what Petersen said.

‘I reckon I've got to thank you both,’he said.

‘It's a pleasure,’ Brown told him. Petersen said nothing.

After a little while Brown went and at nine o'clock, when the last light had gone from the sky, Johnson and Petersen went down to the boat in the little bay below the house. The fierceness of the westerly had gone with nightfall, but it still came in gusts over the hill and rippled the water along the shore. The tide was low and the boat swung on her moorings close to a point of rock. Johnson waded out feeling the water cold about his legs and thighs, and brought her in. Then they took the sail cover page 181 off and ran the sail up and fitted the rudder. When everything was ready Johnson let go the moorings and held the jib across to point the boat's head on the right tack. A gust caught them and swung the boat over and out from the bay.

It was a fifteen-mile sail to the inner harbour and the wharves, close-hauled against the westerly. The little open boat sailed well into the wind with an occasional chopped wave coming over the bow and spraying them. This was after they had got round the first point and were in the more open water and longer reach of the gulf. Petersen sailed with one arm over the tiller and his foot on the main-sheet jammed against the coaming. Johnson, sitting with his feet braced against the centre-board case, pulled his hat down over his head and his coat up round his ears to keep the cold wind out. The salt water dampening him where he had got wet bringing the boat in, or now coming in spray over the bow, was cold and chill, but stronger to him and more freshening than the rain and river water that had chilled his blood through the winter. They sailed on past a shore that was dotted with lights from small groups of houses. Seawards the flash-lights from the islands of the gulf winked at them. Petersen broke the silence that had fallen on him to say:

‘I hope all this'll be a lesson to you, son. You weren't a bad deck-hand when I knew you. You ought to settle down now and have a steady job.’

‘The last fellow told me that got shot,’ Johnson said.

‘You ought to think a bit more about yourself,’ Petersen said. ‘A fellow like you could have a place and settle down and do some decent steady work. You could have a good place on a ship if you cared to. If you get back to England now, you better try for something like that. The world's full of too many fellows like you not knowing what to do page 182 with themselves and wandering round and agitating for more pay and getting into trouble of all kinds. I seen it happening the last thirty years. It was the war did it or what, I don't know.’

‘I've worked hard all my life,’ Johnson said, ‘and been paid damn all. If fellows like me make more trouble now than they used to it's because they've got more sense.’

‘That wasn't any reason to go shooting up this man on a farm.’

‘I didn't shoot him,’ Johnson said sombrely. ‘He shot himself. I didn't want to shoot him. I liked him all right. There was a reason why it went like that just the same. I ve been thinking about that. It came with working away there on that farm, just the three of us, and no pay. None of us had any pay. You couldn't get away. You couldn't do anything but go on working. I've been thinking about that and the way things were there. It wasn't any life.’

‘You're not much better than one of these reds,’ Petersen said, ‘and God knows why I'm going to all this trouble with you and lending you fifty pounds. But I can't see a man that was in my ship go all to bad like this.’

After a while they came to the main harbour, past the shore lights of the suburbs and in between the brightlylit ferry-boats running from North Shore to the town. They sailed on in sheltered water now with the wind coming quietly to them over dark water, past the breakwater and the yachts moored at anchor, until they came to the wharves.

‘I don't know quite where this ship of yours is,’ Petersen said. ‘I think I can find it.’ And he sailed close past the wharf-heads looking around him. Lights reflected on the water made it hard to see, but at last he found what he wanted.

page 183

‘I'm going to land you on the steps at the head of the wharf,’ he said, ‘and push off.’

Johnson nodded. He was cold still and uneasy.

‘You got the money?’

Johnson nodded. The clock on the ferry buildings struck midnight. Petersen took the little boat in neatly with the sheet loose to an iron ladder at the end of the wharf.

‘Your ship's down the middle on the far side. You'll find it all right. Push the boat's head out, will you?’

Johnson, one foot and hand on the ladder, pushed her head round, and a gust coming round the end of the wharf caught the sail again. Petersen put the tiller over and as the boom swung across was off into the night without a word. The white sail faded into grey and was lost in the darkness. Johnson climbed up the ladder and at the top of it met a night-watchman looking down at him.

‘What's your ship, mate?’ he asked.

‘The Stamboulos.’

‘You got a wharf card?’

‘No, I've been out fishing with my mate the last two hours, that's all.’

The night-watchman nodded.

‘It's a cold bloody night for early summer,’ he said. ‘You catch anything?’

Johnson shook his head.

‘You're sailing tonight?’

‘Tomorrow morning,’ Johnson said. The night-watchman nodded again and went back to his room against the wharf shed. Johnson walked down the wharf and found his ship. It was like most oil tankers, built flat and low with no shape. There seemed to be no one about on board her though the gangway was down and deck-lamps lit. He found his way forward and down into the forecastle. page 184 There was one man there half-hidden in the thick, dimly lit air, lying on a bunk. He was a little undersized man with dark hair falling across his face and a sallow complexion. He raised himself on one elbow to look at Johnson.

‘Who are you?’ he asked.

‘I've just come aboard,’ Johnson said. ‘I'm signing on. Where's everybody?’

‘Late shore leave,’ the man said. ‘They'll be back later. What's you name?’


‘You English?’

‘That's right.’

The sailor lay down again and shut his eyes as if he had lost interest.

‘What bunk can I take?’ Johnson asked him. The sailor pointed to a bunk on the lower tier opposite himself.

‘That's the one,’ he said. ‘It was Ponoli's.’ He crossed himself sleepily, closing his eyes again. Johnson lay down on the bunk and, unlacing his boots, went to sleep. He slept with his left arm hunched over the breast-pocket that held his money and his right arm crooked under his head. Later in the night he was awakened by a light in his eyes and woke to see a man standing over him with a lantern. This was a big man; he had the same dark hair and swarthy face as the other man Johnson had seen, but he was built massively like a bull. He had bare arms bristling with black hair and thickly matted hair on his chest. He said to Johnson, speaking thickly with broken English:

‘Who t'hell are you?’

Johnson cleared his head, looking up at him.

‘My name's Harrison. I'm signing on.’

‘Who t'hell told you so?’

‘I fixed it with the Captain, Captain Nikopolos.’

page 185

‘You did, heh?’

‘That's right. I fixed it with him.’

The big man put the lantern down on the floor and laid his right hand on Johnson's shoulder.

‘Well, listen you, Har'son,’ he said. ‘That's not your bunk – no – that your bunk over there’ – and he pointed to an upper bunk on the opposite side. ‘Now you get out, see. You do what I say for'd here, see?’

Johnson sat up, pulling his shoulder away from the big man's grasp. He bent down and picked up his boots and, taking them, climbed up into his new berth. The big man paid no more attention to him. He put the lantern down on a table in the centre of the forecastle and sat down. He took off his shirt, baring his arms and chest. Then he found a bottle in his kit and rubbed his chest and arms with oil so that the muscles glistened, standing out in the lamplight. He was a big man. He must have weighed fifteen or sixteen stone.

In the late afternoon of the next day the Stamboulos was meeting the first of the ocean swell on the edge of the gulf. She was where Brown had said she would be, passing the Great Barrier Island. Southward and to starboard the blue mountain sides of the long Coromandel Peninsula ran steeply down into the water. The cliffs of the Barrier island were smooth rock and, above, hills of straggling bush and half-cleared scrub. The sun, going down in the west behind them, caught the cliff faces and the dark blue of deep ocean water below them. The swell came lazily across the Pacific. It had travelled a long way. It welled up in great rolls, that were lifting the ship's bow as they came, going on towards the land. In front the horizon curved round with the emptiness of sea going into the distance. Up forward, leaning on the rail, Johnson was watching this. It was the last of New Zealand that page 186 was passing them by. The town and the small islands of the gulf and the low hills of the mainland were lost behind in the distance, and the glitter of sun on the waves and the white track of the screw.

Johnson had found the only other Englishman on board, the captain's steward and assistant cook. He was a small man, a Cockney, with a white pinched face and ears that stood out sideways from his head. He stood with Johnson now, looking towards the Barrier island.

‘There's been two good wrecks on those cliffs there,’ he said.

Johnson nodded. He had done with talking for the time being.

‘That's the last of that,’ the steward said. ‘That's the last we'll see of that country for a bit.’

Johnson was watching it, not knowing what it felt like now to be leaving it. The hills of the island behind, with their sharp clay breaks and patches of fern, were like the hills on Stenning's farm.

‘It's the third trip I made here, mate,’ the steward said. ‘I hope it's the last. You lived there long?’

‘Not long,’ Johnson said.

‘I don't want to come here again,’ the steward said. ‘I had a girl inAuckland I met the first time I was there, the first trip out. I was going to marry this girl and take her home. She was illegitimate, this girl, but she told me all about it. She was all right. We had it all fixed up. I brought her out presents and all, this time, and she took them too. We was going to have dinner last night before the ship sailed, her and a friend of hers and another man and me. There was four of us. I ordered the dinner–at the ‘Central’–I ordered it for the four. Then they didn't come. She sent a note to the ship, just a note, that's all. I tried to ring her up and they said she was out. So I went up to the hotel. page 187 Bring the dinner in, I said to the waiter. It's ordered for four, he said. This is all there is, I said, send it in. After that I rode around in a taxi. I don't remember. I met some of the fellows from the ship and they brought me back on board.’

Johnson had been only half listening.

‘It's tough,’ he said.

‘She shouldn't have taken the presents and all, and done that,’ the captain's steward said.

‘No, she shouldn't have done that. You don't want to worry about it,’ Johnson added. ‘You want to forget it.’

‘I'll forget it all right, but she shouldn't have acted that way.’

‘It wasn't any way for her to treat you,’ Johnson said.

The captain's steward spat over the side.

‘Well, that's that,’ he said. ‘If I'm lucky I won't be here again.’

‘It's not a bad country,’ Johnson said. ‘It's not too bad.’

‘They can keep it,’ the captain's steward said.

‘It's going to be a while before I see it again,’ Johnson said, ‘but it's not too bad a country. I've had some good times here.’

Someone came up behind them. It was the big man, the Italian bo'sun. He laid his hand heavily on the steward's shoulder.

‘Well, how you say,’ he said, grinning. ‘You feel the better this morning, eh? How you say, ain't love grand, eh?’

‘I'm all right now, Louis,’ the steward said. ‘I'm all right today.’

The Italian pushed with his great hand on the little man's shoulder so that he had to hold himself off from the railings.

‘You all work up last night,’ he said. ‘You and the women, page 188 eh? The trouble is you just a little fellow, no good with the girls.’ He grinned widely, turning to Johnson.

‘You, Har'son,’ he said. ‘The old man wants to see you.

‘Who wants to see me?’

‘The Old Man, the Captain wants to see you.’ He transferred his hand to Johnson's shoulder. Johnson turned to him. He turned his back on the Barrier hills and the light of the sun on its steep cliffs going by.

‘You can keep your hands off me,’ he said.

The Italian dropped his hand. He grinned at Johnson, disliking him.

‘Where do I find the Captain?’ Johnson said.

‘Listen you, Har'son, you ever been on a ship before?’

‘I've been on ships before.’

‘Well, listen, the old man is on the bridge, see, or else he is in his cabin. You go find him and you don't talk back, see?’

Johnson was in no hurry to see the Captain. He did not want to talk to him now, but he turned and went, going aft towards the bridge with the light of the sun on the water and on the country that was dropping behind them coming into his eyes.