The Marriage of Esther. A Torres Straits Sketch - Guy Boothby - ebook

The Marriage of Esther. A Torres Straits Sketch ebook

Guy Boothby

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Opis

The Marriage of Esther, surrounded by a messy community of settlers on a remote island off the coast of Australia, combines the best qualities of a classic action-adventure film with an ingeniously crafted riddle – and right in the middle of all this is a heartbreaking novel.

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Liczba stron: 272

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Contents

Two Men ’€” A Fight ’€” And a Series of Calamitous Circumstances

A Woman ’€” A Recovery ’€” Transformations and Two Resolves

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

Destiny ’€” An Accident ’€” And a Betrothal

A Wedding ’€” A Conversation ’€” And an Episode

A Temptation ’€” A Fall ’€” And a Series of Emotions

Satisfaction ’€” Dissatisfaction ’€” And a Contemplated Arrival

A Vision and a Reality

Happiness ’€” Unhappiness ’€” And a Man of the World

Delirium ’€” A Recognition ’€” A Departure and a Return

Battle and Murder

Conclusion and Epilogue

Chapter 1

Two Men–A Fight–And a Series of Calamitous Circumstances.

Scene.–The bar of the Hotel of All Nations, Thursday Island. Time, 9.35, one hot evening towards the end of summer. The room contains about twenty men, in various stages of undress; an atmosphere like the furnace doors of Sheol; two tatterdemalions lolling, apart from the rest, at the end of a long counter; a babel of voices, with the thunder of the surf, on the beach outside, over all.

There was surely complete evidence before the house that the two ragamuffins particularised above were unpopular. So far the silent but contemptuous superiority of the taller, and the drunken and consequently more outspoken insolence of his companion, had failed to prepossess one single soul in their favour. Even the barman, upon whose professional affability the most detested might, during moments of the world’s disaffection, rely with some degree of certainty, had not been able to bring himself to treat them otherwise than with the most studied coldness. This fact was in itself significant, not only because it showed the state of his own feelings regarding them, but inasmuch as it served to give the customers of the Hotel of All Nations their cue, upon which they were not slow to model their own behaviour. Men are peculiarly imitative animals at times.

But, however much his manners might fall short of the ideal, the taller of the twain was certainly not ill-looking. In stature he might have been described as distinctly tall; his inches would have totalled considerably over six feet. His frame was large, his limbs plainly muscular; his head was not only well set upon his shoulders, but admirably shaped; while his features, with the exception of a somewhat pronounced nose, were clearly cut, and, if one may be permitted the expression, exceedingly harmonious. His eyes were of an almost greeny shade of blue, and his hair, brown like his moustache, fell back off his forehead in graceful curls, as if the better to accentuate the fact that his ears were small and flat, and, what is uncommon in those organs, packed in close to his head. On the other hand, however, his costume, judged even by Thursday Island standards, was not so satisfactory. It consisted of a pair of much worn moleskin trousers, a patched shirt of doubtful texture and more than doubtful hue, open at the neck and revealing to the world’s gaze a waste of sunburnt chest, and a cabbage-tree hat that had long since ceased to be either new or waterproof. His extremities were bare, and, at the moment of our introduction, for want of something better to do he was engaged in idly tracing Euclid’s Pons Asinorum in the sand of the floor with the big toe of his right foot. So much for Cuthbert Ellison, the principal figure in our story.

Silas Murkard, his companion, was fashioned on totally different lines. His height was as much below the average as his companion’s was above it; his back was broad, but ill-shaped; while his legs, which were altogether too long for his body, had a peculiar habit of knocking themselves together at the knees as he walked. It was for this reason that he wore the two leather patches inside, and halfway up, his trouser legs, that had been the subject of so much ironical comment earlier in the day. But, since the patches had been put in, the garment had shrunk almost out of recognition, and consequently they were no longer of use in checking the friction. As a result, two ominous holes were assisting still further in the business of disintegration going on all over his raiment. It was peculiar also, that in spite of the workmanship once bestowed upon his threadbare coat, the hump between his abnormally broad shoulder-blades gave his head an appearance of being always craned forward in search of something, which notion of inquisitiveness was not lessened by the pinched sharpness of his face. Indeed, it might almost be said that his features backed up the impression thus given, and hinted that he was one of that peculiar class of persons who, having much to conceal in their own lives, are never really happy unless they are engaged in discovering something of an equally detrimental character in those of their neighbours. But in this respect Dame Nature had maligned him. He had many faults–few men more–but whatever else he might have been, he certainly was not inquisitive. Doubtless, had he been questioned on the subject, he would have replied with the Apocrypha, “The curiosity of knowing things has been given to man for a scourge.” And even if he had not anything else to boast of, he had, at least, his own ideas of the use and properties of scourges!

The two men had appeared in the settlement that morning for the first time. Up to the moment of their debarkation from the trading schooner Merry Mermaid, not one of the inhabitants had, to his knowledge, ever set eyes on them before. Who they were, and what the reason of their destitution, were problems presenting equal difficulties of solution. But Thursday Island has not the reputation of being a fastidious place, and it is probable that, had their behaviour not been such as to excite remark, their presence would have passed unnoticed. But, as I have already said, the smaller of the pair was unfortunately under the influence of liquor; and, as if to be in harmony with his own distorted outline, it was a curious form that his inebriation took. Had the observer chanced upon him casually, he would, in nine cases out of ten, have taken it for his normal condition. He stood leaning against the counter, his head craned forward, slowly and deliberately talking to himself, criticising the appearance and manners of those about him. And though every word he uttered could be plainly heard all over the bar, his companion did not seek to check him. Indeed, it was very possible, being buried in his own thoughts, that he did not hear him.

“The depth of a man’s fall,” Murkard was saying, with drunken deliberation, “can be best gauged by an investigation of the company he keeps. To think that I should fall as low as this spawn!” Here he looked round the room, and having spat in disgust upon the floor, said in conclusion, “How long, my God, how long?”

A big pearler, known in the settlement by reason of his fighting powers as Paddy the Lasher, rolled heavily along the counter and confronted him.

“Look here, my duck,” he said warningly, “I don’t want to interfere with you, but if our company aint good enough for the likes of you and your mate there, I don’t know as how it wouldn’t be best for us to part.”

But the little man only sighed, and then remarked somewhat inconsequently to the moths fluttering round the lamp above his head:

“The honest heart that’s free from a’

Intended fraud or guile,

However Fortune kick the ba’,

Has aye some cause to smile.”

Paddy the Lasher’s reply was a blow direct from the shoulder. It caught the other half an inch above the left eyebrow, and felled him to the ground like a log. In an instant the whole bar was alive; men rose from their seats inside, and more poured into the room from the benches outside. There was every prospect of a fight, and as the company had stood in need of some sort of excitement for a considerable time past, they did not attempt to stop it.

Murkard lay just as he had fallen, but his companion was not so comatose. He picked the inanimate figure up and placed him in a corner. Then, without the slightest sign of emotion, rolling up his tattered shirt-sleeves as he went, he stepped across to where the hitter waited the course of events.

“I believe I shall be obliged to have your blood for that blow,” he said, as calmly as if it were a matter of personal indifference.

“You mean to say you think you’ll have a try. Well, all things considered, I don’t know as how I’m not willing to oblige you! Come outside.”

Without another word they passed from the reeking, stifling barroom into the fragrant summer night. Overhead the Southern Cross and myriads of other stars shone lustrous and wonderful, their effulgence being reflected in the coal-black waters of the bay until it had all the appearance of an ebony floor powdered with finest gold-dust. Not a voice was to be heard, only the roll of the surf upon the beach, the faint music of a concertina from somewhere on the hillside, and the rustling of the night wind among the palms.

Having made a ring, the combatants faced each other. They were both powerful men, and, though temporarily the worse for the liquor they had absorbed, in perfect condition. The fight promised to be a more than usually exciting one; and, realising this, two little Kanaka boys shoved their way in through the circle to obtain a better view.

Half an hour later Ellison had sent his adversary home with a broken jaw. As for himself, he had for the time being lost the use of one eye and a thumb, and was mopping a cut on his left ear with a handkerchief borrowed from his old enemy the barman. Everybody admitted that never before, in the history of the island, had a more truly gorgeous and satisfactory fight been seen.

And it was curious what a difference the contest made in the attitude of the public towards him. Before it had occurred openly despised, Ellison now found himself the most courted in the saloon; there could be no doubt that the fair and open manner in which he had taken upon himself the insult to his friend, the promptness with which he had set about avenging it, and the final satisfactory result had worked wonders with the on-lookers. He could have been drunk twice over without cost to himself, had he complied with the flattering requests made to him. Even the barman invited him to name his favourite beverage. But he would accept nothing. Hardly replying to the congratulations showered upon him, he reentered the bar and hastened towards his now recovering companion. Passing his arm round him, he raised him to his feet, and then drew him from the house. Together they picked their way through the circle of benches outside, and making towards the east, disappeared into the darkness of the night.

Without talking, on and on they walked, slowing down now and again to enable Ellison to mop the blood that trickled down his neck. The path was difficult to find, and very hard to keep when found; but almost without attention, certainly without interest, they plodded on. Only when they had left the last house behind them and had entered the light scrub timber on the hillside did they call a halt. Then Murkard seized the opportunity, and threw himself upon the ground with a sigh of relief.

At first Ellison did not seem to notice his action; he stood for some moments looking down upon the star-spangled sea in a brown study. Presently, however, he returned to consciousness, and then, also with a sigh, sat down a few yards away from his companion. Still neither spoke, and after a little while Murkard fell asleep. In the same posture, his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands, the other sat on and on, gazing with eyes that saw nothing of the Present into the tangled wilderness of his Past.

The waves broke on the shingle among the mangroves with continuous rhythm–a night-bird hooted dolefully in the branches above his head–the wind moaned round the hillside; but still he sat oblivious of everything–thinking, thinking, thinking. He seemed unconscious of the passage of time, unconscious of what was going on around him, of everything but the acute and lasting pain and horror of his degradation. The effect of the liquor he had drunk was fast clearing off his brain, showing him his present position in colours of double-dyed distinctness. He had once been what the world calls “a gentleman,” and it was part of his punishment that every further fall from grace should cut deeper and deeper into his over-sensitive soul.

The question he was asking himself was one of paramount importance: Was he past pulling up? And if he did manage to stop himself before it was too late, would his stand against Fate be of any avail? Would he ever be able to rid his mind of the remembrance of these days of shame? He very much doubted it! If that were so, then where would be the advantage of pulling up? Like a good many men in a similar position, he had discovered that it was one thing to commit acts which he knew to be degrading, and quite another to be saddled with the continual remembrance of them. Jean Paul argues that “remembrance is the only Paradise from which we cannot be driven”; Ellison would have described it as “the only hell from which there is no escape.” Moreover, he was the possessor of one besetting sin, of which he had good reason to be aware, and the existence of that peccability was the chief terror of his existence. It crowded his waking hours, spoilt his dreams, operated on all his thoughts and utterances, was a source of continual danger and self-humiliation, alienated his friends, reduced the value of his assertions to a minimum; and yet with it all he considered himself an honourable man.

His had been a gradual fall. Coming to Australia with a considerable sum of money and valuable introductions, he had quickly set to work to dissipate the one and to forfeit any claim upon the other. His poverty forced uncongenial employment upon him when the first departed; and his pride prevented him from deriving any benefit from the second, when his hunger and destitution called upon him to make use of them. In sheer despair he drifted into the bush, and, by reason of his very incompetence, had been obliged to herd with the lowest there. At the end of six months, more of a beast than a human, he had drifted back into the towns, to become that most hopeless of all the hopeless–a Remittance man. At first he had earnestly desired employment, but try how he would he could discover none; when he did find it the desire to work had left him. His few friends, tried past endurance, having lost what little faith they had ever had in him, now turned their backs upon him in despair. So, from being an ordinary decayed gentleman, he had degenerated into a dead-beat beach-comber of the most despised description. And the difference is even greater than the lay mind would at first suppose. By the time he had come down to sleeping in tanks on wharves, and thinking himself lucky to get one to himself; to existing on cabmen’s broken victuals, and prowling round dust-bins for a meal, he had brought himself to understand many and curious things. It was at this juncture that he met Silas Murkard, a man whose fall had been, if possible, even greater than his own. After a period of mutual distrust they had become friends, migrated together into Queensland, tried their hands at a variety of employments, and at last found their way as far north as Torres Straits, and its capital, Thursday Island. What their next move was going to be they could not have told. Most probably they had not given the matter a thought. Blind Fate had a good deal to do with their lives and actions. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” had become their motto, and for that reason they had no desire to be made aware of what further misery the morrow had in store for them.

After a while Ellison rose and went across to where his companion lay asleep, his arms stretched out and his head several inches lower than his body. He looked down at him with a feeling that would be difficult to analyse. There was something gruesomely pathetic about the man’s posture–it betokened a total loss of self-respect, an absence of care for the future, and a general moral abandonment that was not describable in words. Once while Ellison watched he rolled his head over and moaned softly. That was too much for the other; he thought for a moment, and then went across to where he could just discern some tall reeds growing against the sky. Pulling an armful he returned to the spot, and, having made them into a pillow, placed them beneath the sleeper’s head. Then, leaving the little plateau, he descended to the shore and commenced a vigorous sentry-go that lasted until dawn. The effect of the liquor he had drunk that evening had now quite departed from him, leaving his brain, so it seemed to him, clearer than it had been for months past. As a result of that clearness, the argument upon which he had been engaging himself before wheeled back upon him. That same mysterious monitor was urging him to bestir himself before it was too late, to emerge from the life of shameful degradation that held him before its toils closed upon him forever. Surely he could do it! It only needed the rousing of that pride he had once boasted he possessed. Then friendless, powerless, backed only by the strength of his complete despair, he would show the world that he had still a little pluck left in him. Yes, with the rising sun he would begin a new life, and having made this last desperate stand, it should go hard with him if he did not succeed in it.

As he made his resolution he espied the first signs of breaking day. The stars were paling in the east; a strange weird light was slowly creeping over the hill from the gateway of the dawn; the waves seemed to break upon the shingle with a sound that was almost a moan; the night-bird fled her tree with a mocking farewell; even the wind sighed through the long grass with a note of sadness he had not before discerned in it. Distant though he was from it, some eighty yards, he could make out Murkard’s recumbent figure, huddled up exactly as he had left it. There was even a sort of reproach in that. Yes; he would uprouse himself, he would prove himself still a fighter. The world should not be able to say that he was beaten. There must surely be chances of employment if only he could find them. He could set about the search at once.

Every moment the light was widening, and with it a thick mist was rising on the lower lands. To escape this he ascended the hill and approached his companion. He was still wrapped in the same heavy sleep, so he did not wake him, but sat down and looked about him. The sea below was pearly in its smoothness, the neighbouring islands seemed to have come closer in this awesome light; a pearling lugger, astir with the day, was drawing slowly through the Pass, and, while he watched, the sun, with a majesty untranslatable, rose in his strength, and day was born.

About seven o’clock Murkard woke and stared about him. He regarded his companion steadily for half a minute, and then sat up. Their location seemed to puzzle him. He looked at Ellison for an explanation.

“What the deuce are we doing up here?”

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