Chapter Nine – The Blue Dress

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

What a day it is, here in Pyrmont. The waters of Johnston’s Bay glimmer in the sun with views across to the Glebe Island grain wharf and Balmain as I, Captain Francis Cadell stroll through the crowd of dignitaries who have gathered here, more for the promise of food and drink at my expense that the launch of the strange vessel on the slips.

Thomas Chowne and I share a glance. Now that he has my money, or should I say that of my Melbourne money-lender, we are at peace. I am again the famous Captain Cadell, explorer, sea captain and adventurer. The women fawn on me and men wish that they could be like me.

The band of the 11th Regiment play Rule Britannia as my eyes fall on the creation of my designing pen and their steam-saws and adzes. The Lady Augusta in the slips, ready to ride the rails. The glittering Miss Williams in her blue dress draws our eyes like a diamond in our midst.

I swallow a lump of misapprehension. It is true that Thomas Chowne and his men did a sound job of the hull, albeit with delays, and some public infighting between the brothers that I know much more about now than I did when I placed the order. Yet I, the man who had designed one of the most beautiful clipper ships in existence, the Queen of Sheba, can scarcely believe that I have had a part in creating such an ill-favoured monster as this. For the Lady Augusta is, I have to admit, an ugly boat – and I know that many of the people on the quay that day think the same, though the whispers are too soft for me to hear.

That ugliness is, in part, because her hundred-feet length of deck is crowded with accommodations. This is a commercial necessity. In extracting the required contract from the Governor, Younghusband promised he and his family a trip on the first voyage. Then, of course, he could hardly be expected to travel without his wife, the Lady Augusta for whom the boat was named.  Younghusband himself would also have to be on board, along with his wife and two daughters. The list goes on. More than twenty-five extras have to be accommodated, and in the style to which they are accustomed. Shallow drafted riverboats have no room below decks, so everything is crammed on top.

I know that it is a dog of a boat – as ugly as any ever launched, but later, these excess cabins can be removed, and her appearance will alter for the better. What will I care? By then I’ll carry trade goods the length and breadth of the river, making money from settlers, miners and farmers desperate for stores.

My mind comes back to the moment, admiring the delectable Miss Williams – that svelte female form in a figure-hugging dress. At least, I decide, I have a handsome young woman to launch my paddle steamer. She fusses and giggles in her shining dress,  preparing to launch, with a silk-covered bottle suspended by a blue silk sash.

‘I name this boat, the Lady Augusta,’ she cries in a bird-like voice, and the new vessel slides down into the water. This is a nervous moment, for I have seen many a calamity on the slipways of my native Louth, on the Firth of Forth, and it is good to see this bastard lady float at last. She rides high in the water, being unladen, and still lacking her twin boilers and steam engines, now being finished up in Sussex Street by George Russell and company.

It is Chowne himself who takes up the cry. ‘Three cheers for the Lady Augusta and Captain Cadell.’ The crew of the Esmerelda, floating alongside, join in.

I feel my heart swell with pride. Yes, it is I who will soon be on the River Murray, and she will become the Mississippi of this country, and  riches will rain down upon me.

The Cleopatra, the vessel of which I am currently captain, comes alongside to take the Lady Augusta in tow so our guests can get out on the water. And once they are on board the caterers bring on a feast that has cost my backers dear but I assured them was necessary. I sit next to Miss Williams, and her body is a writhing snake inside that dress.

We toast Prince Albert, and the Queen. Chowne, his tongue hanging out of his mouth like an overgrown dog,  raises to toast to Miss Williams.

Much later, back in my cabin on the Cleopatra, the blue dress rustles as it hits the floor, and my future seems very bright indeed.

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

Photo: View of Darling Harbour, Pyrmont and Johnston’s Bay from Balmain. State Library of NSW

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