― 386 ―

Chapter XV.

Ben Goldstone's flight from Newcastle in the ship Screaming Eagle, with Mrs Davis.—Remorse of his paramour, and vexation of Ben.—An apparition.

ON the morning of Ben Goldstone's departure from Newcastle in the Screaming Eagle he issued from his cabin long before the dawn of day. He had passed a sleepless night, and was painfully anxious lest some mishap should prevent the ship from getting to sea on that day, in which case he knew that all his deeply-concocted schemes would be exposed. He had induced the husband of his paramour to go to Lochinvar the day before, to bargain for some horses, and meanwhile he wiled away the infatuated woman so slyly that not one of her sharp-eyed neighbours saw her leave the house; and there she was, fast asleep, in the best state-room on board the ship. Mr Davis would probably return to Newcastle by the eleven o'clock train, and then the elopement would be discovered, of course; but Ben hoped to be out of sight of land by that time—or, as he poetically expressed it to his lady, “They would be speeding away to the land of the free on the white horses of the Pacific.” It is no wonder then that he could not sleep composedly, seeing that all his plans and plots might be frustrated by a mere change in the wind, or by a calm, or even by a fog-bank.

The stars were shining brightly when Ben came on deck, and the sky was clear, save a few cirrous clouds to the westward. A light land-wind was blowing, and as he paced the deck with an impatient step he would occasionally stop and exclaim, “Blow, good breezes!” then resume his hurried walk, whistling in that dissonant, hissing key which many sailors superstitiously believe has a stimulating influence on the wind. There were no signs of life on board the ship, save the anchor-watch, who was drearily pacing the top-gallant-forecastle, and the pigs under the long-boat, which began to scent the morning air, and to grunt for their breakfast. The morning star

  ― 387 ―
arose brightly above the horizon, and sparkled in the distant ocean, which was as smooth as a lagoon.

“Curse it all!” exclaimed Ben, stopping suddenly in his walk. “Here is a fair wind freshening up, and the tide all right for a good start, and these skulking sea-dogs are all snoring in their bunks. Rot their lazy bones! If I were the skipper, I'd soon rouse them out with a rope's end or a belaying-pin. I wish we had the mate of the Juno on board here; he would smarten up all hands with his big toe, and make them hop about like French fiddlers.”

Just then the man on the forecastle struck the bells (five o'clock), and walked aft and tapped at the chief mate's cabin to tell him the time. Soon afterwards, smoke began to issue from the galley-funnel, and the cook put the coffee-kettle on to boil. Presently the boatswain came on deck, and lighted his pipe; then the chief mate issued from his cabin, and ordered the hands to be roused out, to heave the cable short; and, finally, the captain came on deck, and three hands were sent aloft to loose the topsails. All these signs of active preparation would have been satisfactory to an ordinary passenger, still Ben was impatient and dissatisfied; he thought that the men did not work the windlass with a will, and the second mate did not bully them enough to stimulate their drowsy energies; the men on the yards, too, seemed to be half-asleep, and the captain himself was only half-awake. So thought Ben; but he was afraid to grumble out his discontent.

As the gray morning light gradually brightened, he could see the pilot-boat preparing to push off to the ship, and then his heart began to quail with apprehension that some unlooked-for event had caused Davis to return before the expected time, and lest he should come off in the pilot-boat to reclaim his truant wife, and punish her seducer. Anxiously Ben stood gazing through a telescope at the approaching boat, until he was satisfied that there was no person in the stern-sheets but the pilot himself, who presently ascended the gangway ladder, and took charge of the ship.

Ben had disguised himself in sailors' gear; so, in order to escape the notice of the pilot, he went forward and took a turn at the windlass-handles, and by the promise of a gallon of rum after they got to sea, he induced the crew to put a little more power into their movements. He was also very active in lending a hand to sheet home the topsails and hoist up the

  ― 388 ―
yards, and then to hoist the quarter-boats up to the davits. No mishap occurred to hinder them, and soon after six o'clock the Screaming Eagle had discharged the pilot outside “Nobby's;” and while part of the crew were getting the anchors on deck, other hands were making sail to an increasing breeze from south-west.

Sail after sail was set, in which operation Ben soon showed the crew that he knew all the ropes. The vessel glided through the water with increasing speed, and Ben's spirits gradually rose as his prospect of getting clear away was brightening every minute. At eight-bells the log was hove, and showed full eleven knots, with a freshening breeze; so Ben muttered to himself, “All right!” and went below to breakfast.

“My dearest Jane, we are free! The land is four leagues astern, and bluff old Nobby does not look bigger than a sailor's hat,” said Ben, as he entered the state-room where Mrs Davis was lying in a berth, looking pale and poorly. “Sparkle up my precious ruby! Let not needless apprehension dim those lovely eyes! We are as safe as if we were inside the golden gate of San Francisco. There is not a tug-boat in Newcastle harbour could catch us now if they pressed up steam to within half-an-ounce of bursting the boiler. Ha, ha! the Screaming Eagle is a clipper worthy of our confidence! Cheer up, my bonnie bird!”

But notwithstanding that encouraging address, Mrs Davis looked as cheerless as a caged robin; and instead of responding in a similarly poetical strain, she said with sobbing utterance, “I would give the world to be at home again. I am wretched in the extreme.”

Ben looked quite staggered for a minute. Such a total change in the views of his companion was to him as incomprehensible as it was unexpected. The previous night she had been in overflowing spirits, and had sung sentimental and sea-songs until past midnight. It is true she was rather tipsy, but that was not a new trait. She had slept heavily all night, and had not awakened until the ship began to plunge about in the short seas about ten miles off the land; then she began to feel both sick and sorry, and was evidently unable to appreciate the sentiment which had just bubbled from the lips of her exultant paramour. Presently Ben recovered from his surprise, and said in the softest tones he could assume, “Come, come, deary! Don't yield to those silly qualms.

  ― 389 ―
Show yourself a true woman. Let me lead you out to breakfast. Come, cheer up, my Jenny!”

“No, no, no! I can't move; my head is splitting. Oh dear, dear! dear!”

“Try a little brandy and soda-water, Jenny.”

“Ugh! I can't touch anything; I am dreadfully sick. Oh my! oh my! whatever did I come here for?”

“Don't cry, ducky! You will be better in a day or two. Do let me get you a little brandy.”

“I tell you I can't take anything. Please to leave me alone for a while, Goldstone.”

“As you please, Jane,” said Ben, in a less gentle tone, and forthwith he went out to the breakfast table, looking rather disconcerted.

Poor Mrs Davis was early awakening to a sense of her degraded position, and her heartlessness in leaving her husband and young family. She had yielded to a fatal temptation, been spell-bound, as it were, by Ben's arts and flattery, and only seemed conscious of the enormity of her error when the hope of retrieving it was past. The reaction of the stimulants which she had lately learnt to imbibe, and the nauseating sensation of sea-sickness, were almost intolerable; but added to her physical sufferings were the pangs of conscience and the yearnings which every heart, to some extent, feels for home; and no picture of misery could be more complete than she presented. On the previous night she had kissed her sleeping children, and while doing so, her maternal feelings had almost prevailed over her lawless passion; but Ben stood by, and passing his arm round her waist, he gently drew her from the bedside, and immediately administered a cordial from his dram-bottle, or “pocket-pistol,” then he hurried her away to the boat. Now her mind was tortured by mental pictures of the poor little forsaken ones waking up, crying for their breakfast, and piteously calling aloud for mamma. Then she would fancy her husband returning to his deserted home, and her paroxysms of grief were agonising.

When Ben re-entered her state-room after breakfast, he tried his utmost to soothe her. The man who could seldom speak a kind word to his own faithful, suffering wife, was apparently deeply concerned at the self-wrought misery of a woman who had proved herself void of moral principle, natural affection, or even common modesty! But all his honeyed words and libidinous looks were ineffectual; they did not assuage

  ― 390 ―
her sorrow or her sickness in the least degree; and after a while he grew tired of talking softly to a listener who did nothing but cry and retch at all he said; so he left her and went on deck, to see how the ship was speeding, and to have a comforting nobbler by himself on the spars amidships.

I must now glance back at Ben's career for a few weeks prior to his departure. He had several reasons for absenting himself from Sydney, the strongest of which was the dread of a visit from the father of the poor girl in Melbourne whom he had led astray. He had received a communication from one of his Victorian associates, warning him “to look out for squalls;” that “daddy Smith was on his passage back from China, and he would most likely call Ben to account for his little affair with Amy.” It further stated that “Smith was a cranky old fellow, and Ben had better steer clear of him until his wrath had stilled down a bit, and then something might be done to compromise the matter.”

Ben would probably have stood his ground and risked Mr Smith's wrath, had his pecuniary affairs been in a satisfactory state, for he had confidence in the power of money to insure protection from any ordinary danger. He had not transgressed the criminal code of law, and a mere action for damages would not have scared him, for he had many means of showing a jury that the girl was no better than she ought to be. Of course the law would protect him against the cudgel of Mr Smith, or of any other crusty sire who essayed to inflict summary justice with his own hands. But Ben was, to use a current phrase, “hard up;” his recent attempts to retrieve his heavy losses in Melbourne had resulted in still further losses. He had reason to believe that there would soon be a grand break up of the accommodating cheque in Sydney, with which he was largely involved. Moreover, he had certain misgivings that Mr Smith might possibly meet him some day on a sudden, and argue his case with a Colt's revolver; so he finally resolved to get out of the way of so much impending danger. He could spend a year or two on foreign travel, and in the mean-time his father might die, or some other lucky stroke of fortune might turn up in his favour. On one side, he saw nothing but personal risk and trouble, including the domestic annoyances of a sick wife and a fidgety mother-in-law; on the other side, he saw liberty, freedom, enjoyment! a life on the ocean wave, and the exciting novelties of the glorious land of the

  ― 391 ―
West; and he might go away with money in both pockets, if he managed with his usual dexterity.

The plea of buying horses for India served Ben while he was making preparations for his departure. He had quietly arranged for a passage in the Screaming Eagle a month previously; but a few days before the ship was ready for sea she took the ground, and injured her ruder and stern-post, and had to discharge cargo to undergo necessary repairs. The delay was very annoying to Ben; but, as he afterwards reasoned, it was a lucky knock, for he was enabled to secure a charming companion, one whose tastes, he thought, singularly accorded with his own. The fact of his having taken a passage in the ship was only known to persons who were bound to secrecy by the strongest tie that could hold them; and while repairs were progressing, Ben was sporting about Newcastle and Maitland, and making a feint to buy horses, though he did not pay for any. He was waiting, he said, for the arrival of next mail-steamer, when he expected a military friend from India, who would assist him in his final bargaining for the animals.

On Ben's frequent visits to the billiard-room of one of the hotels in Newcastle, he had met with a Mr Davis, a gentleman who could handle a cue almost as well as Ben could himself, and whose taste in general was of a decidedly sporting turn. He had formerly held a government appointment in a country town; but there had been a difference of opinion between himself and the Colonial Treasurer respecting his quarterly cash returns, and, to his extreme dissatisfaction, he had been dismissed the service. He explained the whole affair to Ben, and showed himself an injured man. Ben looked very sorry for him, and said “the Treasurer deserved to have his head tied up in a canvas money-bag, and be pelted with copper tokens by all the unfortunate victims that he had mercilessly sacked.”

Mr Davis, who was half-tipsy, seemed much affected by such strong sympathy from a mere stranger. He seized Ben's hand, swore he was a brick, and called for two “ginslings.” He then, in a wheedling tone, which frequent practice had rendered almost perfect in its way, asked Ben “to lend him a couple of sovereigns for three days.”

“Here you are, old fellow,” said Ben. “Take this five-pound note, and keep it till I ask you for it. That is more than the Treasurer would do for you.”

  ― 392 ―

“The Treasurer has tried to starve my poor wife and children, sir,” said Mr Davis, in tones of hissing contempt; to which Ben feelingly responded, “Shame! shame!”

Ben had previously heard that Mr Davis had a very handsome young wife; and it was on that account, more than any real fondness he had for the lazy sponger himself, that Ben had assumed to be interested in his case. Had it not been for that enticing fact, Ben would have referred him to some other sympathising friend, or to the pawnbroker round the corner, for “a loan for three days.” The five-pound note was a mere bait, and the tipsy-brained man took it as eagerly as a barracouta bites at a floating hook in a ship's wake. He pocketed the note, and secretly believed that Ben was a “jolly flat.”

That evening Ben took tea with Mr and Mrs Davis in their cottage, a short distance from Newcastle. After tea, all had some rum-toddy together, and while they sat cosily round the fire, Ben explained that his object in staying in the neighbourhood for a few weeks was to buy horses for India. He wished to have the animals all selected prior to the arrival of his friend, Captain Curber, from Bengal. With a delicate frankness, which was expressly meant to strike the lady, he further stated that “he could put a good thing in his (Mr Davis') way, if he would not consider it infra dig. to undertake a duty so much below his position. He might as well have a commission as any one else, and five per cent. on, say £2000, would be a comfortable sum to have in his pocket. He hoped they would excuse him for naming it; still, if Mr Davis liked to accept the job to select the horses, he should have it.”

Mr Davis assured Ben that he should only be too happy to have the job; in fact, it was just what he liked. He knew a horse's points as well as Burt or Buchan Thomson, and he was also intimately acquainted with the district, and with the most likely persons to have animals suitable for a foreign market. While he was expatiating on his own skill, an idea struck him that he might slyly get five per cent. from the venders, which would double his commission, and it was all fair enough as times go, and in common with usage in certain quarters that he was familiar with. “I gladly accept your kind offer, sir,” he added, “with ten thousand thanks.”

“All right, old fellow! That is settled, then; now let us have a drop more toddy over it. You can go to work and

  ― 393 ―
make your selection as soon as you like, Davis; only do not complete a bargain until Captain Curber arrives. Here is another five-pound note to help to pay your travelling expenses.” …

I need not give any further particulars of this disgraceful affair; the result I have shown. There was the wretched, degraded wife in her cabin, a prey to feelings impossible to describe; and Ben had already begun to regret that he had encumbered himself with a companion who, he imagined, had no more real courage than a young kitten,—in fact, she was a crying doll.

The captain and mate of the Screaming Eagle were aware that Ben was an absconder. In addition to paying a high price for his accommodation on board, he had given a liberal douceur to both captain and mate. They suspected that the lady was not his wife, but they were silent on the subject. They were plain, unpolished men, particularly taciturn, and seemingly unobservant of anything but the concerns of the ship. It was impossible, however, for them not to hear the bickerings which were frequent between their passengers. For the first week out, Mrs Davis continued very sick, and did not leave her cabin. Ben showed surprising patience in trying to quiet her incessant repining; but his leering looks, which had struck so many women stupid, were lost upon her, for she turned her back to him, nor would she be consoled either by his poetical flights or his prosy reasonings. After a while he grew discouraged, and resolved to leave her to have her sulky fit out. She grew worse at being, as she said, deserted by him; whereupon a disagreement ensued, a mere tiff at first, but it gradually grew to a noisy quarrel, and Ben's irritable temper so much mastered his cool cunning, that, in an unguarded moment, he struck her a smart blow on the breast. He was sorry for it in less than a minute, for he found that he had not his own gentle Maggie to deal with, and he also saw his mistake in supposing that Mrs Davis was such a tame little pussy. At that hasty blow, her dormant spirit blazed up like fat in the fire, and Ben was obliged to hold her hands to keep her from throwing bottles and other dangerous missiles at his head, or spoiling his features with her finger-nails.

Her screams soon brought the captain and mate into her cabin, when she claimed their protection, and told them how she had been decoyed from her home and her family by Goldstone's

  ― 394 ―
arts and schemes; in fact, that he had drugged her until she did not know what she was doing. She implored them to land her on the first inhabited island they sighted, or put her on board any vessel they met, for she was afraid of her life with that vile man near her. Ben was incensed at the captain's interference, and a stormy dispute arose between them. The result was, that Ben was ordered to take a cabin to himself and keep to it, on pain of leg-irons and handcuffs if he was caught outside the door. The determined manner of the captain convinced Ben that he was over-matched at last, and that his best course was to submit; so he thenceforth took all his meals by himself, and the only fresh air he could get was through the port-hole. The fact of being a prisoner on board chafed his fiery spirit almost to madness, and all day long he paced to and fro his narrow cabin, like a caged tiger.

The ship had been at sea about twenty-five days, when one night, as the chief mate was relieving the watch at eight-bells (midnight), he was startled by loud shrieks from Goldstone's cabin. He rushed in, and found Ben writhing in a fit. The captain was called, and such remedies were applied as were procurable, and in about two hours Ben's consciousness returned; but his manner was extremely wild, and he seemed terrified at something he had seen, but he refused to say what it was. The captain supposed that he was suffering from delirium tremens, as he had drunk hard every day since he came on board from a private stock of his own; so the steward was ordered to stay in the cabin, and watch him. After the captain and mate had gone on deck, Ben told the steward that a woman in grave-clothes had appeared to him, and he believed it was his poor wife. He implored the steward not to leave him for a minute, and promised to give him £100 at the end of the voyage.

Mrs Davis kept closely to her own cabin, and during those days of loneliness she had ample time for sober reflection. Bitter indeed was her sorrow for her past misconduct; and solemnly she resolved that, if she were spared to get back to her home, she would henceforth live a new life. As one grand step towards it, she then vowed that she would never again taste strong drink, for to that fatal influence she mainly attributed her present miserable, degraded position.