Authors: Nevil Shute
FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, DECEMBER 2010
Copyright © 1953 by William Morrow & Co. Inc
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in book form in Great Britain by William Heinemann Ltd., London and in the United States by William Morrow & Co. Inc., New York, in 1953. This edition first published in Great Britain by Vintage Books, an imprint of The Random House Group Limited, London, in 2009. Copyright © The Trustees of the Estate of Nevil Shute Norway.
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage International and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Lord God of Hosts, through whom alone
A Prince can rule his nation,
Who settest Kings upon their throne
And orderest each man’s station;
Now, and through ages following,
This grace to us be given:
To serve and love an earthly King
Who serves our King in Heaven.
C. A. A
(from a hymn sung at
HAVE never before sat down to write anything so long as this may be, though I have written plenty of sermons and articles for parish magazines. I don’t really know how to set about it, or how much I shall have to write, but as nobody is very likely to read it but myself perhaps that is of no great consequence. The fact is, however, that I have been so troubled in my mind since I came back from Blazing Downs that I have not been able to sleep very well or to work whole-heartedly upon my parish business, and my services in the church have been mechanical and absent minded. I think it will help me if I try to write down what it is that has been bothering me, and then I think that I may send it to the Bishop for him to look over. Perhaps the trouble is that I am getting a little old for duty in this somewhat unusual parish, and if that should prove to be the case I must accept whatever he decides.
Writing materials are not very easy to come by here, because Landsborough is only a small town. I went down to Art Duncan’s store just now to buy some paper, but all he had was pads of thin airmail paper and these exercise books that Miss Foster uses for the older children in the school when they have got past using slates. I got six of these books and I expect I shall want more before I have written all that I have to say, but that only leaves nine books
in the store and I would not like to think that I was running the school short. I have asked Art to get in some more, and he will send an order out to Townsville by next week’s aeroplane.
In fairness to anybody who should read what I am writing I think I should begin by putting down something about myself, so that he can form his own judgment on the credibility of my account. My name is Roger Hargreaves and I have been ordained as a priest in the Church of England for forty-one years; I was sixty-three years old last month. I was born in the year 1890 at Portsmouth in the south of England and I was educated at Portsmouth Grammar School. I was ordained in 1912 and became curate of St. Mark’s, at Guildford. In 1914 when the war broke out I went into the army as a chaplain, and I saw service in Gallipoli and in France. I was very fortunate in the war, because although I was blown up by a shell at Delville Wood during the Somme battle I was only in hospital for a few weeks, and I was able to return to the front line in less than four months.
After the war I was rather unsettled, and disinclined to return to parochial work in an English town. I was twenty-eight years old, unmarried, and with nothing very much to keep me in England. It seemed to me that while I was still young and vigorous I should give a few years of my life to service in more difficult places, and after talking it over with the Bishop I left for Australia to join the Bush Brotherhood in Queensland.
I served in the Bush Brotherhood for fourteen years, travelling very widely from Cloncurry to Toowoomba, from Birdsville to Burdekin. During that fourteen years I had no settled home, and I did not very often sleep more than two nights in one place. I drew fifty pounds a year from the Brotherhood, which was quite sufficient for my clothes and
personal expenses, and I had a small expense account for travelling though I seldom had to draw upon it. The people of the outback were most generous in helping me to travel from station to station for my christenings and weddings and funerals and services. They would always take me on to the next place in a truck or a utility, and in the wet when the roads are impassable to motors because of the mud I have been given the loan of a horse for as long as three months, so that I have been able to continue with my duties all through the rainy season.
In 1934 I got appendicitis at a place called Goodwood near Boulia, three hundred miles west of Longreach, where there was a hospital. There was no Flying Doctor in those days, of course, and I had to travel for two days in a truck in very hot weather over rough country roads to get to the hospital. I had peritonitis by the time I got there and I very nearly died, and might have done if Billy Shaw of Goodwood station hadn’t driven me all through the night. I was poorly after the operation and I didn’t pick up very well, so very reluctantly I had to resign from the Brotherhood, and I went back to England. The Bishop was most kind and gave me a very good living, St. Peter’s at Godalming, and there I settled down and met my dear wife, Ethel. Our few years of married life together were so happy I can hardly bear to write about them, so I shall not try to do so.
Ethel died in 1943, and we had no children. In wartime England there was much work for a vicar, and I did not feel the call to greater service till the war was over. But then it seemed to me that Godalming required a married priest more than a widower, and that there were still parts of Queensland where a man of my experience could be of use, even though he were fifty-six years old. I gave up my parish and went back to Australia as the clergyman of an emigrant ship, and to my great delight I found that the Brotherhood
were willing to take me back into their service again in spite of my age.
I soon found that work in the outback was much easier than it had been ten years before. The war had brought improvements to the roads, for one thing, and small wireless receivers and transmitters were in general use on the more isolated stations, so that all communications were vastly easier. Most important of all was the greater use of aeroplanes; there seemed to be airfields all over the place, and even regular passenger services from them. All these developments made it possible for a priest to do a great deal more for the people than had been the case before, and I found that over much of my district it was possible to visit a given town or station as frequently as once in six months instead of once in two years as was the case when I first came to the country.
In 1950 an acute shortage of clergy developed in New Guinea; at one time owing to leave and sickness there was only one priest of the Church of England there to serve an area of a hundred and eighty-one thousand square miles in Papua and the Mandated Territory. It seemed to me that their needs were even greater than those of the Queenslanders, and with the consent of the Brotherhood I volunteered to go there for a few months to help them out of their difficulty. I was fifty-nine when I flew up to Port Moresby, much too old for such a job, I suppose, but there was nobody else to go. I travelled widely in the country for a year, from the Fly River to Rabaul and from the goldfields at Wau to the plantations of Samarai. I am afraid that I was careless in taking my Paludrine because in September 1951 I went down with a severe attack of malaria at Salamaua, and I was in hospital at Port Moresby for some weeks. That was the end of my service in New Guinea.
I mention that attack of malaria because I still get
recurrences of it from time to time, though in a milder form. It has a place in the events that I am trying to write down. I am told that these malarial fevers are likely to go on for some years after the first attack before they gradually die away, and the recurrences that I get now are already much less severe than the first bout I had at Salamaua. I find now that I can go on with my work quite well when the fever is on me, certainly as regards travelling, although occasionally I still have to postpone a service for a day while I go to bed and sweat it out. However, that first bout was a severe one and left me rather weak, so that I was glad to give up New Guinea and to go and stay with friends up on the Atherton Tableland behind Cairns in North Queensland while I recovered and regained my health.
The Bishop was travelling in the district at that time, and he wrote to me proposing that he should come to see me, and saying things that I did not deserve. I travelled down to meet him at Innisfail because I was quite well enough to go to him, and we had a very friendly talk in which he spoke about my age and the desirability that I should take on less exacting work. He told me then that he was anxious to reopen the parish church at Landsborough and to provide a resident priest for the parish. He spoke about my experience of the country, and asked me if I would like to go there for a few years to start up the church again in that district. He said that he would not expect me to travel very widely in the parish, which is about twenty-eight thousand square miles in area though sparsely populated, because he hoped to be able to provide me with a young man as a curate within a year. Money is always a difficulty in the Church, of course, but he said that he would send me a truck in a few months time, although it might have to be rather an old one. It hasn’t come yet, but I really get on very well without it.
Landsborough is a town at the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria in what is known as the Gulf Country. The town was much larger fifty years ago than it is now; at the time of the gold-mining boom it had about twenty-five hotels—probably mere drinking shops, most of them—but now it has only two. There are about eighty permanent white residents there, counting men, women, and children, and a floating population of two or three hundred blacks who live in deplorable conditions in iron shanties outside the town. The place is about two hundred miles from Cloncurry and five hundred by air from Cairns and Townsville on the coast. It has a hospital staffed by a couple of nursing sisters, and it has a house for a doctor though no doctor has ever been induced to practise there. In an emergency they speak upon the radio to Cloncurry and the Flying Doctor comes in the air ambulance; there is a very good aerodrome built during the war, and an aeroplane calls with mail and supplies once a week.
My church at Landsborough is a very simple weatherboard building that was rebuilt about thirty years ago after a bush fire. I am afraid it is rather sparsely furnished, and it could do with a coat of paint both inside and out as soon as we can get the money for it. It has chairs instead of pews, and this is a great convenience because once every two or three months we get a travelling cinema in Landsborough and then we can take the chairs out of the church and put them in the Shire Hall, or in Art Duncan’s yard in the hot weather. It is a convenience to me personally, too, because my vicarage is rather short of furniture, so that if I have notice of anybody coming to see me I can go and borrow a chair from the church and take it back before the next service.