51[Eley, Barbara, 1995, Ion Idriess, ETT Imprint, Sydney, Chapter 18]

Chapter Eighteen


When Ernestine Hill visited him yet again in Perth Jack took her for 'tea and cakes', but the lady did not tell him anything of interest. He wrote to Cousins that Ernestine's visit "ended up in my advising her on her book to be; she is a nice little sort though and as she has wandered quite a lot and has a good style of pen she ought to turn out a decent book. The little writing that I have seen of hers I like better than any other writer I know except for Davison's Man Shy. I've wondered why she did not keep our acquaintance in Sydney after Baume's introduction.'


As usual Jack was torn between moving on and staying to glean all the available material. If the police patrol he was to accompany did not leave for unknown country Jack determined he would leave Broome for Derby and take off with pack-horses into the Kimberley on his own. While he was reaching this decision, the wet moved in, and the lay-up season began in Broome.

The pearling fleet, its captains and crews, including the divers, were in port taking a well-earned three-month break. Jack found himself in the right place at the right time for he was able to collect material which otherwise would have stayed at sea for nine months.

He stopped fighting the urge to start another book. While putting together Forty Fathoms Deep, this 'Pearl' book, as he called it, developed into two. 'I couldn't resist the other, though I fought against it. It is incomparably easier to write than the Broome book. A straight hero right through, MacKenzie, second in command of James Clark (Pearl King) when they sailed for the Azores and opened up that Dutch possession,' he wrote to Cousins. The MacKenzie manuscript written at that time and intended as the second book after Forty Fathoms Deep, remains unpublished. By mid-February both books were three-quarters written, and he had settled into a comfortable routine in Broome. Getting into the Kimberley took second place.

Broome, lightly touched by the depression, lazed languidly on the left shoulder of Australia and casually carried on its great pearling industry. The inhabitants took as little notice of the rest of the continent as the southern states took of them. The climate was very hot. The most stimulation anyone was prepared to incorporate in any one day was the sight of the brilliant red and purple bougainvillea vines. Occasionally someone would take umbrage about being misrepresented by a southern newspaper, but, by the time the next mail was due to leave, the energy to write a Letter to the Editor in protest would have evaporated.

'This is a land where there ain't no schedule. The people simply don't know what it means to plan to get started on time, it isn't the custom. They won't travel in the wet at all and are adverse to helping any "mad" man to do so,' wrote Jack.

Broome bewitched him. Its people were polyglot. Malay divers, aristocratic Japanese, Chinese, Greeks, Indians and Europeans rubbed shoulders with European Australians and Aborigines. There were the wanderers, the white flotsam and jetsam, and there were the wives and children of the pearlers.

In the town the delightful streets were lined with shady trees. Every house with its windows latticed against the remorseless sun and flanked by dense gardens, lush with tropical plants thriving in the rich red soil, seemed a sanctuary of cool mystery. There were also questionable lanes, where it was advisable to 'watch your back'. Here the houses almost butted against each other, the shade was not cool and inviting but full of menace.

At night the air was thick with the scent of frangipani. Coconut palms cast deep, jagged, abstract-shaped shadows. Above, molten silver stars blazed in a blanket of electric blue. The night brought out jealous lovers and pearl thieves with the possibility of tribal fights between the imperturbable Chinese Tongs. To the casual observer all seemed idyllic, but beneath the beauty of tropical nights the air seemed to crackle with excitement.

A collection of exotic ships rode at anchor in the port. Chinese junks and all manner of strange craft from around the world rubbed planks with the Broome pearling fleet. The thirty eight foot tide regularly slipped back to the deep ocean, leaving all ships high and dry lying drunkenly on their sides.

An incurable romantic, Jack revelled in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the town. Broome with its harbour, silver town, pearl town and oyster town, was to Jack, as it has been for many others, the most fascinating place in all Australia. He loved all the different coloured races and the whites; none was subdued, they were all 'damn cheeky' and self-assured, there was work about and they were making good money. For Jack, his stay in Broome took on the aura of a Robert Louis Stevenson South Sea romance.

He wired Cousins: 'Copy excellent for book this district alone am seriously considering remain to collect it.' Cousins, received the wire with delight. The idea of having a ten-volume Idriess collection to offer for sale on an instalment plan was starting to become a real possibility.