Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron
Accompanied by the crisp sound of my shoes on the teak boards I pace the short distance from the curved bulkhead to my desk. In my hand I hold a letter, and already I have read it three or four times, smarting at the insult contained therein. I, Captain Francis Cadell of Leith, do not take insult lightly, and my lips twist and writhe with the force of words that try to hurl themselves across five hundred miles to the author of that letter.
The captain’s cabin of the SS Cleopatra feels like a prison to me. Right now I need to be free, yet I’m chained to my command. I pause in my pacing to look through the observation window across the Town Jetty of Hobson’s Bay, where gangs of stevedores are unloading the ship’s holds via a derrick, powered by a donkey winding engine, enveloped in a shroud of steam and smoke from its vertical boiler. Beyond this, to the east, I see the ruffled waters of Port Phillip Bay and St Kilda Beach, a few strollers holding their hats in the wind.
The activities of strangers, and indeed the unloading of the Cleopatra interests me but little. I am the captain of this steamer only for a few months; a stop-gap measure to ensure that my bank account balance is recorded in black ink. Not enough, however, never enough. Money, damned money. A curse or a blessing depending on the lack or surfeit.
I pause to mop my brow with a handkerchief, then sit at my desk to read the letter one last time, hearing the voice, as I read, of Thomas Chowne, boatbuilder of Pyrmont, Sydney.
Resolved to action at last, I pick up and trim a quill, dip the nib in my ink pot and address an envelope to that most useful but wooden human being, Mr William Younghusband of Adelaide, South Australia.
After a pensive moment, listening to the shouts of the stevedore gangs deep in the steamer and on the pier, I begin to write.
My Dear William
Forgive me for getting quickly to the import of this letter, but you and I have known each other and worked for each other’s interests for some five years now. I must tell you that those very interests are threatened, and threatened harshly.
As of this moment, I am in Melbourne with the Cleopatra. As soon as our cargo is discharged, probably Thursday, we will be loading passengers and goods bound for Sydney. There, as you know, at Chowne’s Shipyards at Pyrmont, lies my almost finished vessel, the Lady Augusta, which we both know will one day be the pride of the Murray River. The launch party is scheduled for seventeen days from now – for which event I have lined up a bevy of dignitaries, along with an attractive and well-connected young lady to swing the bottle (Miss Williams will wear an eye-catching dress of my favourite colour – blue, she assures me), followed by a repast fit for the gods.
At the thought of the delightful Miss Williams in a blue dress I allow myself a pause. I have aspirations concerning this young woman, but that base desire is nowhere near as important as the cause of this letter. I force my mind back to the issue at hand and continue to write.
What is the problem? I hear you ask. My answer is twofold.
The first issue is that I am in receipt of a letter from my boatbuilder Thomas Chowne, demanding an overdue progress payment of two thousand pounds. If this amount does not reach his bank account in ten days’ time, he will cancel the contract and place our beautiful new paddle steamer in the hands of auctioneers. Demand for river vessels is apparently strong on the Hunter, Manning, Macleay and other rivers north of Sydney.
The second problem is that I do not have two thousand pounds, or even a fair portion of it, being fully stretched in all directions.
Now, as you know, the Legislative Council of South Australia has offered a prize of two thousand pounds to the first two mariners to navigate the Murray as far as Swan Hill. In doing so they set conditions that made it possible for only a very specific kind of vessel to succeed in claiming the prize.
As you also know, in anticipation of liquidity problems, I wrote to the Governor, Mr Young, and asked him, that in addition to the prize already offered, we might enter into a second, more private agreement. The terms of which are as follows: £500 to bring the Lady Augusta through the bar, £1000 to steam up to the Darling Junction, and £250 per quarter to operate as a trading entity on the river for the first twelve months.
For reasons known only to himself, Governor Young has not yet accepted this generous offer. He has obfuscated, delayed and bedevilled me at every turn. This is where I require your assistance. I implore you to use every force of persuasion at your disposal to get Young to accept this arrangement. Your position on the Legislative Council will make it impossible for him to ignore you, particularly if you can enlist allies into our cause. Promise him a berth on our inaugural voyage up the Murray if you have to. Promise him anything that I have in my power to deliver.
The moment that I receive your return letter with the news that Governor Young has signed the agreement, a discreet firm of financiers here in Melbourne will provide me with a loan for the amount of two thousand pounds. I will place a teller’s cheque in the hands of Thomas Chowne when I reach Sydney, and the launch will go ahead, bringing excellent publicity and the beginnings of this great new venture.
I do not need to remind you of the glory and wealth that awaits us as inaugurators of the river trade. A million pounds worth of wool a year can be moved on that river. Haulage fees for such a vast fortune will make us rich.
I also don’t need to remind you of the ragtag band of hill-brothers who are cobbling together their own vessel near Mannum. The blow to our pockets and reputations if they are allowed to supplant us will be both insulting and irretrievable.
I await your urgent response. Abraham Knott, master of the Norwood will wait off Port Adelaide for your response, up to forty-eight hours he promises me, then fly with the nor’easterlies back to me with the answer. Please do not let this crucial task take longer.
Francis Cadell (Captain)
After putting the quill back in the holder, I lift the two pages up to waft in the candle heat to dry them. This done, I fold them into the envelope, then raise the brass bell from the desk and toll it lustily.
The lad who hurries in a few moments later stands at attention. He is a slow-witted specimen, though reliable. ‘Yes, Captain, sir?’
‘Take two men and a skiff. I need this letter rowed across to the master of the fast schooner Norwood, do you know it?’
‘And hurry. They sail for Adelaide with the tide.’
The lad takes the package and leaves. Now I breathe at last, leaning on my desk with one hand, allowing myself to think forward to the launch of the Lady Augusta, and the blue dress of Miss Williams.
Continued next week …
©2021 Greg Barron
Image: Hobson’s Bay, 1853, from the Signal Staff, Williamstown (State Library Victoria)