The Man Behind The Ghost
The dim figure stepped from the shadow into the light which came through the open windows. It was a man, dressed not in the white or khaki of the tropics, but in the flowing robes of a Jewish rabbi, with the traditional small round hat on his head. He stood there in the light for a moment and then, before the bishop could do or say more, disappeared. The apparition did not leave by the door or disappear through the open windows but vanished into thin air there, in the light, under the eyes of Bishop Trower. And so the story of the Bishop’s ghost began under the unimpeachable guarantee of a bishop of the Church of England.
---“Life and Letters”, The West Australian, November 26th, 1938.
This sinuous tale begins with a death, but not that of Abraham Davis, whose beautiful Broome home Bishop Trower would come to occupy. It begins with the death, on December 12th, 1586, of Stefan Báthory, Grand Duke of Lithuania and elected King of Poland.
Long-serving Stefan had no natural or immediate successor. Custom required that the nobles of the land convene on a prescribed day to choose, from among their ranks, the new king. The election was set down for August 18th, 1587. All knew that this conference would be difficult; support was sharply divided between rival factions and between the principal aspirants: Sigismund III Vasa, son of King John of Sweden, and Maximilian III, Archduke of Austria. On the appointed day negotiations continued late into the evening but, as midnight approached, consensus seemed as far off as ever. Rather than fail to meet their obligations under the law, the nobles accepted a novel proposal: that a much-admired civil servant might fill the regal void. “Saul the Jew,” who had long advised the late king and who now assisted the parties in their deliberations, enjoyed such broad respect that the opposing camps voted unanimously to make him Rex Pro Tempore, to reign until the political impasse could be broken. According to folklore, the evening ended with toasts of “Long Live our Lord, the King!” in the several languages of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
p288On the following day, the nobles reconvened. Differences were resolved or put aside to reach a verdict: Sigismund would be the next King of Poland. And Saul Katzenellenbogen, whose elevation to royalty had captured the public imagination, became Saul Wahl—“wahl” meaning “chosen” or “anointed” in common parlance.
His unusual duty done, the one-day King of Poland gave back the throne and became a common citizen once again. His rule was brief, but to his children and to their children, his exaltation was permanent and inalienable. Three centuries and a dozen generations later, Woolf Davis, orthodox Jew and president of the East Melbourne Hebrew congregation, determined that his offspring would not break the chain. His son would carry the name “de Vahl” and in his turn claim descent from the Saul of blessed memory.
Abraham de Vahl Davis was born on December 16th, 1863, the sixth of eleven children. The first-born boy, Moses de Vahl, had died in infancy; by that common tragedy, Abraham became the eldest son. At age ten he was sent to the newly established Melbourne Hebrew School. With the support of a successful and tight-knit community, the little school flourished. It opened in 1874 with ninety pupils; by its fourth year it had two hundred. Standards were high. Although the school was formally dissevered from the new state school system, it willingly received the visits of the government inspectors who reported well on its discipline and academic performance. Despite its extended Hebrew curriculum, the school was among the best in the colony in all regular subjects. Indeed, the school’s chairman took delight in telling the large gathering at the third annual prize-giving that, in public English examinations, the school had achieved a pass rate of 90 per cent, compared to averages of 58 per cent in Victoria and 70 per cent in England herself!
Support from the Melbourne business community extended to having the names of all prize recipients published in The Argus. Woolf and Rachel Davis must have been pleased to see their bright children listed and lauded, especially young Abraham who consistently took prizes for Hebrew and Hebrew translation. For the most part, the prizes consisted of “handsome books, the gifts . . . of gentlemen who take a deep interest in the institution,” but there were also cash incentives that spoke clearly of this community’s commitment to education. In 1877, the first student to matriculate received a purse of ten guineas—a huge sum, equivalent to several weeks of adult wages.
If Woolf Davis had hoped that Abraham would follow in his footsteps and affirm both faith and lineage, he could not have been disappointed. In 1894 Abraham married Cecily Altson and a year later the couple produced a son. Like his father, Abraham named his first-born boy Moses de Vahl but the child, like his namesake, succumbed in the first year of life. As was the case for Woolf and Rachel, Abraham and Cecily suffered p289the loss of an infant only once. Their later children enjoyed good health and the next-born boy, Gerald de Vahl, became the eldest son exactly as his father had done. By 1899, Abraham had further emulated his father by becoming president of the East Melbourne Hebrew congregation.
The title was the same but the world had changed since his father had accepted the position. In Melbourne, the Jewish community was well established and respected, but its members were keenly aware of rising anti-Semitism in Europe. Perhaps more than any other segment of the Australian community, Australian Jews maintained a keen and careful interest in world affairs. They read, listened and watched for any change of demeanour toward their race.
In the last years of the nineteenth century, one event more than any other sharpened that particular consciousness. When French Army counter-intelligence became aware that artillery information was being passed to the Germans, suspicion fell on Captain Albert Dreyfus, a rich Alsatian Jew; he was arrested for treason in October 1894. Three months later, largely upon the evidence of a handwriting expert, Dreyfus was convicted in closed court martial and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana.
Before his departure, Dreyfus was paraded before his former comrades and formally stripped of all rank. In an almost theatrical display, buttons and epaulettes were torn from his uniform and his sword broken in two. Both had been specially prepared for the occasion: the buttons and epaulettes had been removed and lightly resewn, and the ceremonial sword cut in two and rejoined with solder.
At the time of his formal dégradation, the officers responsible for Dreyfus’s conviction genuinely believed that he was guilty, but by the end of 1896 they must have suspected his innocence. When Dreyfus’s former commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Picquart became the new Director of Espionage, he uncovered evidence that the crime had been perpetrated not by Dreyfus but by one Ferdinand Esterhazy. Picquart’s revelations were not welcomed by his superiors; for his audacity, he was transferred to a desert post in southern Tunisia.
Rather than disgrace themselves and the French Army, senior officers closed ranks. Over three years they committed perjury, forged documents and silenced opposition. And in a desperate bid to mollify a deeply suspicious public, they placed Esterhazy on trial—and engineered his acquittal.
If the faux trial of Esterhazy was contrived to bring closure, it failed; indeed, its effect was precisely the opposite of that intended. It now seemed beyond doubt that officers of the highest rank were protecting a man whom they knew to be guilty of espionage. Two days after the acquittal, French magazine L’Aurore (The Dawn) published an article that must rank among the most influential of all time. “J’Accuse...!” was an p290open letter from acclaimed novelist Émile Zola to the president of the republic; it accused no less than five generals of complicity in a gross miscarriage of justice. Zola concluded:
In making these accusations I am aware that I am making myself liable to articles 30 and 31 of the law of 29/7/1881 regarding the press, which makes libel a punishable offence. I expose myself to that risk voluntarily.
As for the people I am accusing, I do not know them, I have never seen them, and I bear them neither ill will nor hatred. To me they are mere entities, agents of harm to society. The action I am taking is no more than a radical measure to hasten the explosion of truth and justice.
I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul. Let them dare, then, to bring me before a court of law and let the inquiry take place in broad daylight! I am waiting.
With my deepest respect, Sir.
Émile Zola, 13th January 1898
The reaction to J’Accuse...! was instant and electric. France had never been so suddenly or sharply polarised. When Zola was arrested and charged with criminal libel, supporters and detractors clashed outside the court. But the tide had turned; neither condemnation nor conviction could undo the work of the pen. Zola had bluntly declared that the persecution p291of Albert Dreyfus was, at its heart, anti-Semitic. Dreyfus, he insisted, had fallen not to common or accidental misfortune but to la chasse aux «sales juifs», qui déshonore notre époque: the ‘dirty Jew’ obsession that is the scourge of our time.
Zola’s letter became a rallying cry for Jewish communities around the world and the East Melbourne congregation was no exception. When a retrial was granted in late 1899, Abraham Davis sent a formal letter of support to Dreyfus.
Dear Sir,—I desire, on behalf of the members of the East Melbourne congregation, to extend to you the assurance of our deepest sympathy with you in the unexampled distress which you have undergone, and of our sincere admiration of the fortitude which you have displayed throughout the agonizing experience of the past five years. I would couple with these expressions toward you the further assurance that the members of this congregation, in common with the vast majority of the people in Australia, have been thrilled with admiration at the heroism and devotion of your wife, to whose fearless championship, no doubt, the granting of a re-trial is due . . .
When the new court martial commenced on August 7th, 1899, most Dreyfus supporters believed that acquittal was a foregone conclusion. It was not. To a new chorus of astonishment and outrage, he was reconvicted. But Dreyfus would not long remain in prison. Hundreds of French and foreign correspondents had come to Rennes in Brittany for the trial. They had followed this story for five years, from Paris to French Guiana and back; they understood that it was no longer about the martyrdom of one man. In their despatches, they openly canvassed the greater danger: that France, deeply divided, risked descent into chaos if it could not break the obduracy of its military elite. With all eyes upon it, the French government overturned the conviction and released the prisoner.
Another five years would pass before the grace of the state extended to exoneration. In July 1906, in the space of a few weeks, Albert Dreyfus was declared innocent, readmitted to the army with high rank, given new command and made Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. Justice was seen to be done.
* * *
A year after Abraham married Cecily Altson, his younger sister Rebecca married a determined young businessman named Mark Rubin. The young husbands could scarcely have been more different, but Rebecca’s choice of partner would have a life-changing impact upon Abraham also.
Rubin was a Lithuanian immigrant who arrived in Australia in 1886, with very little English and even less money. In Melbourne, he found what work he could. After a stint as a wharf labourer, he started a small business; for a time, he hawked haberdashery from a barrow. His round p292soon extended into country Victoria, but his restless pursuit of success would take him further still: to the opal fields at White Cliffs in the far north-western corner of New South Wales. For a few years Rubin mined and traded the raw stone, but increasingly he turned his hand and mind to the polishing and presentation of the unique gem. By the time he became engaged to Rebecca, he could fairly call himself a jeweller.
But Mark Rubin was not destined to make his fortune from opal; that would come from an opportunity yet more distant. According to folklore, Rubin discovered Broome and its mother-of-pearl by paying close attention to the seasonal travels of a competitor. The story may be fanciful but the profitability of his new calling was not; in the early days, the pearl-shellers of the remote Nor’-West often returned from their forays with shell and pearls worth far more than the boat.
Rubin’s rise to prominence in Western Australia was truly spectacular. By 1902 he needed a business partner to buy in Broome what he now knew that he could sell in London. A close, confidential relationship was imperative, and his articulate brother-in-law emerged as the logical choice.
In the early years of the Rubin–Davis partnership, the demarcation of roles was not so clear. Both were learning the business, and both spent time in England and in the warehouses and gem-houses of Europe. When Abraham departed for London in 1904, his wife accompanied him, but she did not make the journey merely to support her husband. Cecily, it seems, had business of her own to attend to and, like Abraham, was building a reputation for unusual expertise.
Chiltern, August 10th, 1904.
We desire to intimate that Madame Cecily E. Davis, the accredited representative of Weingarten Bros., of New York, makers of the celebrated “W.B.” Erect Form Corsets, will give a demonstration of the great utility and suitability of the various models of these Corsets for the different figures.
Madame Davis, the great corset expert, will be in attendance at our establishment from August 15th to 20th (both dates inclusive), with the object of fitting the celebrated American “W.B.” La Vida Corsets. We suggest that it is desirable to give us a call during Madame’s visit, even if not wanting corsets at present, so that the number or design suitable for your figure may be registered in our books for future reference.
No charge for fitting.
The celebrated “W.B.” Corsets are 7s 11d, 10s 6d, 12s 6d, 20s, up to 50s.
Do not miss this opportunity of a life time, as Madame’s visit cannot possibly be extended beyond the above mentioned dates.
p293Requesting the favor of a visit.
Cecily’s choice of business did not sit well with Abraham, especially when, after their return to Australia, she announced that she would not return immediately to Broome. Instead, she would continue selling corsets as a travelling saleswoman. Reluctantly, Abraham accepted the seasonal separation and returned to his own pressing work.
Winter months in Broome were busy. Rubin rarely visited now; he was fully engaged in London and Europe and left his partner to do the buying and to manage boats and men. The latter was no small task: Rubin’s fleet grew to thirty luggers and five schooners, and Abraham bought into other operations on his own account, becoming part-owner of Moa, Mozel, Princess Mary and Experience.
The routine was hard, but Abraham enjoyed the life that pearls made possible. A little south of the town centre he built a graceful, wide-verandahed bungalow overlooking Roebuck Bay. The house, which he named “De Vahl,” welcomed many visitors. At different times it was a place of business and a retreat from business. For Broome’s little Jewish community it became their Saturday synagogue, with Davis as part-time rabbi. And when Abraham’s sixteen-year-old daughter Dorothy came to stay, the house was thrown open for a party favourably reviewed by the Broome Chronicle:
Cards of invitation were issued by Mr. and Miss Davis for an At Home at their residence “De Vahl,” on the 24th June, and proved quite a social success. Guests were received by Mr. and Miss Davis from 8 to 8.30 at the main entrance of their beautiful home, and dancing was soon in full swing. The card tables were also well attended. An innovation was two Limericks, and a guessing competition, for which prizes were given, and these were all won by visitors from south. In the programme of twelve dances were included two leap year dances and a slipper dance, which proved quite successful. Dancing was kept up until about 1.30, and the wide verandah around the house which made an excellent ballroom, was taxed to the utmost by the numerous visitors, who voted it a very smart affair.
Cecily Davis returned to Broome in the winter of 1907, but not even the most beautiful home in the town would keep her there. The climate, she insisted, was affecting her health. At the end of the pearling season, Abraham accompanied his wife to Melbourne, where the advice of several doctors was sought. Once again he returned to Broome alone. A few weeks later, he received a letter from Cecily. She had, “for the sake of her health,” departed for South Africa with her brother.
The year 1908 was the most profitable ever, but Rubin and Davis were keenly aware of two potential threats to their business. They understood that growing unrest in Europe could change the commercial landscape, and change it quickly. They also recognised that their industry, so dependent upon indentured coloured labour, could be destroyed by new legislation enacted to keep Australia white. As support for the elimination of coloured labour grew, Davis became increasingly exasperated by what he saw as ill-informed, xenophobic commentary, especially from the neighbouring town to the south. In its editorial of January 16th, 1909, The Hedland Advocate had declared:
It is becoming plainly apparent that the Chinese and Japanese are now entering the northern ports of Australia in hordes . . . White men cannot compete with them in business and they are driving the workers out from every avenue of employment. At the present time there are fully 50 colored men walking about Broome emaculately dressed, each man displaying six sovereigns on his coat as buttons, while numbers of white men are reduced to begging for a feed. And this in a “White Australia” !
Under the rules governing indentured foreign labour, men were engaged for the business of pearling only. Although they spent time ashore, they were not permitted to work ashore except in the handling of shell and the maintenance of boats and equipment. The Advocate’s editor Walter Barker now alleged that the regulations were being openly flouted and that the coloured men were working as carpenters and waiters, taking p295work from whites. “It is here,” Barker wrote, “where the shoe pinches for the true Australian.”
These indignant outpourings might have withered on a provincial vine, had they not been picked up and reprinted by a Sunday magazine in the capital. To Abraham, travelling south to catch a steamer for Melbourne, it was particularly galling that unsupported allegations of corruption in Broome were, through the agency of Perth’s Truth, now reaching a wider audience. After arriving in Fremantle, he called at the newspaper’s office and declared that he would like an opportunity to present an alternative view. Truth agreed to his request for an interview and, a few days later, gave space and prominence to his comments.
Davis began with an explanation of the indenture system:
The process of engaging and deporting men is of interest to you, as you have committed yourself to the adoption of the article in the Port Hedland paper, and I will tell you just what we have needed to do to get men—and to get rid of them.
When we want a man or a number of men we have to apply to the collector for a permit to engage him or them in Singapore. We have to say why we want the men, and what have become of those they are intended to replace. I have a man die—they do, a big percentage of the divers, from paralysis—and I must get another. I report to the collector, who wires the department in Melbourne detailing the circumstances and asking that I have permission to obtain the help I require. He recommends the application, and in the course of a few days the reply comes that it is granted. Then I instruct our agents in Singapore to give me the class of man I want.
The cost of getting a man is about £14. There are a good many charges; first the medical certificate, then the fare, then, probably in advance, the agent’s fees, and incidentals. Perhaps the man, after he is engaged and passed by the doctor, goes on a final razzle the night before he ships to come to us, and when he arrives is found to be unfit for work as a consequence of the night out with the boys—and girls. Then we have to send him back at our cost; first, because he is no use to us; and next, because the collector will not allow him to land. These men are indentured for three years, and with each application we have to put up a bond of £100 that we will keep to our contract, hold the man while he is in our employ, and when the term of his engagement is up either renew it or deport him. It was also said that it is the practice of masters to send time-expired men out on a lugger a little way, bring them back at night when the collector is in bed, and put them to work again. This is incorrect, and nonsense anyhow.
It is as serious and formal a business to get rid of a man as to get him. The collector has a complete list of all on the boats, with their p296photographs, descriptions, and finger prints, and, more than that, he knows most of them. When the time is up we have to get his ticket and inform the shipping-master of his desire to leave for his home. The first question asked is as to his ticket. Then the man is interrogated, and it must be made quite clear to the officials that he is satisfied and willing to go. Everything being in order, the collector takes the tickets and, the day the steamer is to call, has all the boys lined up and marched aboard. They are tallied off in the presence of the captain and the purser and handed over, then, to the ship. The collector sees them aboard, and does not leave till the gang-plank is hauled in.
Having argued that the rules were well understood and usually complied with, Davis added:
The idea that the colored labor of the port is of the cheap kind is another mistake. We cannot indent men for domestic service, and have not got them. There are none of the comforts of tropical India in the Nor’-West—no cheap nigger with a fan to brush the flies off his master, no punkah-wallah to keep the air moving when he wants to rest. No, nothing of that kind, of which you may have read in books.
Uncharacteristically, Truth stepped aside from sensationalism to present a wide-ranging commentary. Davis continued:
There appears to be an idea in the public mind, and the newspapers do not do anything in the way of removing it, that the Nor’-West—and Broome particularly—is one of the God-forgotten corners of the Commonwealth; that the pearlers are a kind of slave-driving Legrees, and the divers and deck hands on the boats are treated as the slaves were in the days prior to the abolition. Which is all just so much plain bunkum. The white men, to the number of a couple of hundred, engaged in the industry are the equal in every way of a similar body of white men in any part of the world. There are in the waters of the coast some 2000 men employed, and the fact that the place is regarded as the paradise of the policeman may be mentioned against repeated stories of riot or revolt and running amok and raising hell generally. Now and again there is trouble, in the case, perhaps of a diver going ashore, getting too much drink and into a row in the Japanese quarter. There are a number of Japs and Chinese there; but they are mostly citizens of long standing, who claim to be Englishmen and hold the colored men in a good deal of contempt. There are Japanese women there, just as there are on the goldfields of the State; and I do not know that it is not a good thing that for the few white women in the country they are there. But all the places are under the supervision of the police and the authorities, and the town is quite as law-and-order-loving in its general arrangements as any place in the State.
p297Like most of the Broome pearlers, Davis was adamant that his industry would not survive any indiscriminate prohibition of coloured labor. He did not waste the opportunity to make his point, although he may have regretted his choice of words.
As to working the trade with white labor, it is impossible. In the first place you would not get white men to do the work and live the life under the only conditions in which there would be a possibility of carrying on at a profit. If we were to advertise for white men to take the places of the colored men on the luggers we would not get a hundred. We lose a large number from diver’s paralysis, and I suppose it is no harm to say, in such a “white” office as that of “Truth”, that it is preferable for black men to be sent to this deadly work than for the white man to be offered up on the altar of Mammon.
The following year, Broome’s pearlers received clear indication that their opinions would not prevail. The federal government declared that after 1913, the use of indentured coloured labour would not be tolerated. Reactions to the edict varied greatly. Some shrugged their shoulders and declared that they would “go for their lives for three years and then chuck it.” Others gambled that a white diving regime would prove so difficult to implement that the deadline would inevitably be pushed back. Larger operations had the most to lose. Among the master pearlers, Hugh Richardson, Hugh Norman and Sydney Pigott began to consider seriously the possibility of training white divers. Mark Rubin and Abraham Davis did not; they began diversifying, swapping pearling investments for pastoral land in a well-informed shift from luxuries to necessities.
* * *
By the beginning of 1910, Abraham Davis was recognised as the pre-eminent pearl buyer on the Western Australian coast. Although well known and respected in both Broome and Melbourne, he was increasingly troubled by the rigour and dislocation of his divided life. Letters of remonstration to Cecily in South Africa remained unanswered, and since her departure, their son Gerald had gone to live in Sydney with Abraham’s sister and her husband, Reverend Phillip Phillipstein. For two years, he had seen his boy only briefly, during summer holidays. From Koombana on April 4th, with Gerald’s thirteenth birthday only a few days away, he wrote:
My darling son,
I am writing these lines to reach you on your Bar Mitzvah. I am unable unfortunately, to be with you on the happy occasion, and I think you will understand how deeply I regret this. But my sincerest prayers will be offered to God, on that day, that He may crown you with His choicest gifts: a good heart, and a good name. To achieve p298these, you have but to follow humbly the Law which God gave to our ancestors in the olden days. Love and fear Him : fear and love Him. Commit all your thoughts to Him who alone is a true guide : meet all your troubles and pain with courage and contentment : for none can escape these, and only those can endure them who recognize that our Father in Heaven tries us, and in the end will reward our trust and faith. Be brave and true, my dear lad, in all your actions : do not soil your thoughts with aught unclean, nor your hands with any base acts. Be true & loyal to the faith of our fathers : to the race to which we belong. Do all your work with goodwill, earnestness, and sincerity; be gentle to all : kind and helpful to the aged, poor or suffering. Do not let selfishness or self indulgence claim you, but let justice be your watchword in all you do.
And I pray that the Grace of our Heavenly Father be with you; and that you may grow, from strength to strength in works of goodness, charity and truth. God be with you, my darling boy, and bless you throughout all your days! Amen and Amen!
Your loving father,
Read in isolation, this letter may seem austere and impersonal, but two weeks later Abraham wrote to Gerald again, delivering a fond embrace to complement the firm, fatherly handshake.
My darling old laddie,
I suppose you are in a state of joyful excitement on account of your approaching Bar Mitzvah which, P.G., you are to celebrate in a few days. I only wish I could have been with you, and shared in your happiness, but of course we must all do our duty first of all, even if we personally suffer by it. Well, dear, I am quite sure that you will acquit yourself worthily: and I am proud and thankful that God has blessed me with a good and faithful sonnie, who will do his level best to do all that becomes a Jew.
I hope you have settled down to good steady work at school & now that your barmitzvah is practically accomplished I want you to go in for music, carpentry, physical exercise, drawing (also chocolate eating). I need not tell you once again to be watchful to help Aunty & Uncle in every way & not to make their labour of love in looking after you any greater by want of consideration. I hope Auntie Min is a stringent Comptroller of your Exchequer, and that when I come next year (P.G.) to Sydney, you will have a huge accumulation of gelt to add to your deposit of £20/–/– in Melbourne Savings Bank. . . .
I trust your military ardour is as hot as ever, & that you will lead your gallant men with frantic signals right into the very jaws of the tuckshop!
p299Write and let me know all you have been doing since I left. Don’t send me such tiny scraps of letters, or I shall be compelled to double your income.
I am very busy this week, dear old boy, so will now conclude.
Praying God’s blessing on you, now and for ever more.
Your loving father.
Pressure of work did not normally permit any departure from Broome during the winter, but in the last week of May 1911, just a few weeks into the new pearling season, Davis boarded the Paroo for Fremantle and after spending a few days in Perth, continued to Melbourne by the Kanowna. It appears that the principal purpose of this trip was to initiate divorce proceedings against Cecily. By July, Davis was back in Broome, but his mind was elsewhere. Private investigator Leonard McCallum had traced Cecily and a man named Jack Hattrick to a boarding house in Sydney, and p300court proceedings were set down to commence in November. On October 21st, the following advertisement appeared in the Broome Chronicle:
For Private Sale.
In lots to suit purchasers.
ON ACCOUNT OF MR. A DAVIS.
The whole of his FURNITURE, PICTURES, GLASSWARE, &c.,
now at his residence “De Vahl.”
Intending purchasers can make appointments with the undersigned to inspect at convenient time.
J. J. Taylor,
Commission Agent, etc.
A week later, the same newspaper delivered a discreet message of support to a well-liked and respected member of the Broome community.
Bon Voyage.—Among the passengers on the Charon is Mr. A. Davis (of M. Rubin) who is taking a trip to the Old Country, on a health restoring cruise. We join with his many friends in wishing Mr. Davis a pleasant and beneficial trip and that he will return in his usual buoyant spirit.
It was not simple recuperation that led Abraham to leave for London. He had determined to be far away when his private affairs went on public display. To gain a divorce on the grounds of misconduct, Cecily’s misdemeanours would be presented in court; he had little doubt that they would also be served up to a salacious public. When the case commenced a few weeks later, daily newspapers across the country offered a running commentary. In Melbourne, The Argus was particularly attentive.
Mr. Woolf said that in 1901, after prior disagreements, the husband and wife became reconciled. The petitioner went to England on business, and returned in 1903. There were further disagreements and reconciliations. In 1905 or 1906, the parties went to live in lodgings in Western Australia, where petitioner found certain letters secreted, and taxed his wife with the question, “Do you swear before our child’s grave and your living parents that you are innocent?” Respondent said she was innocent, and petitioner gave her the benefit of the doubt. Marital relations were resumed. Petitioner submitted the letters to a lawyer and was informed that, while they showed indiscretion, they did not establish proof of misconduct. In 1908, petitioner brought his wife to Melbourne for medical advice, and afterwards himself returned to Western Australia. A little later respondent wrote and told petitioner that she was advised to take a trip to South Africa for her health’s sake. Respondent, in spite of her husband’s protests, left for South Africa with her brother, who was on a trip to Australia. On p301March 3 petitioner wrote to his wife to Africa, remonstrating with her for her disobedience. Respondent remained away for two years, until 1910, and, except for two letters, never communicated with her husband or children. In the meantime petitioner took other advice, and was told that references in the letters to “torrid kisses,” double beds, the communication of the respondent’s bedroom number to the co-respondent could only mean one thing.
Petitioner allowed his wife £6 a week, with an extra allowance for the children. When respondent arrived in Melbourne in 1910, a letter was handed her from her husband, asking who “Sandy” was and other pertinent questions relating to the man, the author of the compromising letters to the respondent. The daughter had gone away to her mother, but the boy had remained with his father. Respondent went to live with her daughter at Pott’s Point, Sydney, and passed herself off as a widow and her daughter as her niece, and also accounted for Hattrick’s presence by saying he was her business manager. On finding out about the real state of affairs, Mrs. Fuller, who kept the boarding house at Pott’s Point, asked them to leave. From there they went to the Wentworth Hotel, and afterwards to North Sydney, where the pair were now living under the same roof. In 1911 it had been ascertained that Hattrick paid a number of cheques into Cecilie E. Davis’s banking account. In 1905 the respondent, against her husband’s wishes, went travelling with corsets for Sargood’s, and the co-respondent first saw respondent in a train, and fell in love with her at first sight “in spite of the powder on her face,” and not long after there was a question in a letter from co-respondent, asking respondent if she got the note he left for her in the toe of her shoe the morning she left Ararat.
Public interest might have faded rapidly, had Cecily and her long-time lover not refused to answer some delicate questions. Their reticence did not alter the outcome, but the referral of legal questions to a higher court delayed the decision and kept newspaper hounds on the scent. In December 1911, a decree nisi was granted on the grounds of both desertion and misconduct. Jack Hattrick was ordered to pay costs.
* * *
On March 8th, 1912, Abraham Davis boarded Koombana at Fremantle for the run north to Broome. While the ship offered ten days of relaxation and indulgence to other Broome-bound passengers, Abraham and his newly hired assistant John Evans had appointments to keep. At Shark Bay, Cossack and Port Hedland, there were pearls to be viewed and possibly purchased in a series of rapid-fire meetings with sellers and agents. After an overnight stay in Port Hedland, the whistle-stop trading was done. At 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 20th, 1912, Koombana slid over the bar on the morning high tide and continued north.
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p302Of the great storm that claimed Koombana, much has been written. When Gorgon, southbound from Singapore, made the discovery that ended all hope, Broome was cast into a limbo between sadness and disbelief. Hugo and Gilbert Harper had lost their brother George; Syd Pigott his wife and two stepdaughters. Captain Stuart, Abe Davis and George Simpson were gone, as were Mr Milne and all of the Public Works men bound for Derby. Many were shocked to learn that James Davis, who had travelled to Fremantle to welcome the English divers, was also among the missing. He had arrived home safely by Paroo, but had found it necessary to return to Port Hedland on business.
For Jim Low and Jock McDonald, ex-Koombana engineers now established in Broome, the loss was cause for the broadest lament: for Broome acquaintances lost, for a fine ship in which they had sailed together from Glasgow, and for fellow officers and crewmen who had remained with her to the end. In a letter to his sister Jane back home, Jim wondered:
Did the London papers not get mixed up in the two men of the name of Davis that went down with the “Koombana”, Siebe Gorman’s representative and Abe Davis the great pearl buyer and expert of the firm Rubin Davis of London & Broome, the finest speaker I think I ever heard, witty and to the point. A very strict Jew he was, so strict that his wife and daughter jibbed and cleared . . .
After the divorce proceedings, Abraham had prepared a new will, naming his business partner and brother-in-law Mark Rubin as his executor. But when Abraham was lost at sea with Koombana, the signed, witnessed copy of his new will was lost with him. Fortunately, a Melbourne solicitor held a draft of the document and was in a position to swear both to its authenticity and to its recent execution. In a brief Supreme Court hearing, probate was granted. That should have cleared the way for the estate to be settled in a dignified way, but the chronicle of Davis v. Davis was not quite done. There was a late surprise for the court and a final twist for avid readers of the divorce columns. Cecily, who had for years pursued her separate life with Jack Hattrick, applied to the court to have the decree dissolving her marriage to Abraham set aside, on the grounds that he had died before the date on which the decree was to become absolute.
If the return to court was remarkable for its apparent cynicism, it was also enlivened by the unresolved mystery of Koombana. The Sydney Morning Herald revived the story under the banner: “A Melbourne Divorce. Remarkable Position. Is the Petitioner Alive?”
The matter came before Mr. Justice Cussen in the Practice Court when Mr. McFarlane appeared to support the application, and Mr. Hogan to oppose . . .
Mr. Hogan: I appear for the petitioner.
Mr. Macfarlane: We say there is no petitioner.
p303Mr. Hogan: I appear for the representatives of the petitioner, and ask for an adjournment. We do not know where he is. He may not be dead. If so, I appear for his executors.
Mr. Justice Cussen held that Hogan appeared for the executors of Davis, and adjourned the matter till Thursday.
It is not known what communication passed between the parties over the next few days, or what pressure was brought to bear. When the matter returned to court, solicitor Hogan requested that the summons be dismissed without costs. The executors, he said, had gained the consent of the applicant. Cecily Davis did not appear.
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The estate of Abraham de Vahl Davis took many years to settle. There were formal partnerships to be dissolved and informal arrangements to be understood. Abraham had entered into partnerships not only with his brother-in-law, but also with friend Maurice Aarons, who lost his life in battle at Gallipoli in August 1915. Matters were further complicated by the fact that Abraham’s will granted unusual discretion to the executor, Mark Rubin, who conducted business using funds from the unfinalised estate for several years after Abraham’s death. Finally, in February 1922, newspaper advertisements declared a final date for the registration of any outstanding claim against the estate.
By then, Broome was a very different place. The town had lost its prosperity to a decade of global tumult, and much of its cosmopolitan vibrancy to the politics of a young, headstrong nation. The beautiful bungalow overlooking Roebuck Bay remained, but it was no longer “De Vahl”; it had become the residence of Gerard Trower, the first Anglican Bishop of the North-West. And when the bishop reported waking to see a white figure in a pool of light, his experience was embraced by long-time townsfolk who willingly cast back to better days. The visitor, they surmised, was the ghost of Abraham Davis, the great pearl buyer lost with Koombana, roaming his former home in rabbinical robes, searching for a lost fortune in pearls.
How perverse!—that an articulate man, of culture and conviction, should be remembered not for his accomplishment but for a much-publicised divorce, an untimely death and for bizarre, stereotypical appearances in the afterlife.
But all is not lost. From life and letters, by careful assemblage, the man may be remade. Lest we imagine.