The Dunbar Case(3)
Author:Peter Corris

    I rang the university when I’d finished reading and asked for Professor Wakefield in the History Department.

    ‘History? Oh, that’d be Human Studies, I suppose,’ the switchboard operator said. ‘I’ll put you through.’


    ‘This is Hardy.’

    ‘Good. Well?’

    ‘It’s compelling.’

    ‘I imagine you have questions.’

    ‘A few. No death certificate for William Twizell, I take it?’

    ‘No. He must have used another name.’

    ‘Why would he do that?’

    ‘In your experience, why do people adopt other names?’

    ‘Because they have something to hide.’

    ‘Exactly. What you’ve read is just an outline. There’s a good deal more to tell you that I’m not prepared to commit to writing just at the moment. We should meet again and I’ll tell you more. Then we can get things on a business footing. I see you have an office in Pyrmont.’

    ‘That’s right.’

    ‘Not far from the Maritime Museum where the Dunbar exhibit is. I propose that we meet there.’

    ‘You’re assuming ... ?’

    ‘I’m assuming that you want me to sign a contract, agree to your terms, pay you a retainer, and enlist your help on this fascinating project.’

    I didn’t like him or his manner but the curiosity bug had bitten me. I said that I’d hold off until he’d told me a bit more and I’d bring a contract with me.

    ‘That’s reasonable,’ he said.

    We agreed to meet at the Maritime Museum at 2pm.

    He tried for a light touch. ‘There’s no admission fee. You can’t claim it as an expense.’

    ‘I might decide to make the deal retrospective to the beginning of our meeting yesterday. Charge you for the time and research.’

    ‘Touché,’ he said.

    ~ * ~

    I remember when Darling Harbour was a derelict jumble of disused goods lines, sagging sheds and machinery rusted beyond recognition. They got to work in the late ‘80s and transformed it into the people-friendly precinct it is now. It’s money-friendly too, of course. A flat white’ll set you back four bucks and what it costs to hire one of the display areas or conference set-ups I don’t like to think. But the layout, with the paved walkways, the water features and grassy bits, is tasteful and calming, a big plus in a modern city.

    I enjoyed the walk from Pyrmont and the feeling that, although the city was humming around me, I could access some tranquillity with a little exercise. The Maritime Museum was one of those modern light and airy structures that looked as if they could float away but was actually all solid concrete, glass and steel.

    Wakefield, in a grey suit more appropriate to the duller day, was standing outside the museum talking on his mobile phone. He raised a hand in greeting and I hung back until he’d finished. Some people are happy to carry on a mobile phone and a live conversation at the same time or to text while they’re talking to you. Not me.

    He slid the phone into his pocket and patted himself to make sure it hadn’t disturbed the line of the jacket.

    ‘Good afternoon, Cliff. I hope we’re on those terms now.’

    ‘Henry.’ We shook hands.

    ‘Fine structure, isn’t it?’ He gestured at the museum.

    ‘It looks right for what it is.’

    ‘True. Let’s go inside and I’ll show you what they’ve got on the ship.’

    We were given stick-on visitor tags and went up a series of ramps into the heart of the building.

    ‘It’s part of the Age of Sail section,’ Wakefield said. His tone was condescending. ‘Nicely done, I’d say.’

    He conducted me unerringly through a succession of rooms and passages with muted light and stopped in front of a large glass showcase. The exhibit contained a sizeable painting of the vessel in full sail and a collection of items brought up from the wreck—coins, buttons, bottles, a watch, rings.

    ‘The water’s turbulent at that spot,’ Wakefield said. ‘A great deal of the material would have been carried away immediately. The bottom is sandy and sand shifts. This is all the divers retrieved.’

    I leaned close to the glass. ‘It’s effective, I’d say. It’s modest, but I reckon it captures the sadness of the event.’

    ‘Yes, I suppose so.’

    I took a good look at the painting. ‘It was a beautiful ship.’

    ‘Yes it was and it cost a lot to travel in the best cabins. There were some wealthy people aboard. That’s an important part of the story. Let’s get on with things.’

    We retraced our steps and walked to the nearest cafe. Wakefield asked to see my contract. He looked through it quickly and took out a silver pen and a chequebook.

    ‘Very professional,’ he said.

    ‘Hold on. You were going to fill me in some more before we signed up.’

    ‘I’ve never met anyone so reluctant to get his hands on serious money. Okay, to pick up from where we left off—a man with something to hide and wealthy people aboard the ship.’

    ‘Go on.’

    ‘One of the passengers was a man named Daniel Abrahams. A Jew, of course, he was born in America and had spent some time in South Africa. I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it has been to trace his story through various sources but the upshot is this—he found diamonds in South Africa about ten years before anyone else. He’d been hired to prospect for them by one of the companies that eventually established the huge diamond mines in that country, but he ... broke faith with them. He failed to report his discovery, took a large cache of diamonds and fled to England.’

    ‘Bloody diamonds,’ I said.

    ‘Excuse me?’

    ‘They’ve caused more trouble in the world than they’re worth.’

    ‘If you say so. The point is, Abrahams seems to have thought he was in danger in England and he took a ship to Australia.’

    I’d ordered coffee. Wakefield ignored it when it arrived and went on with his story.

    ‘Abrahams was aboard the Dunbar with a fortune in diamonds in his possession. He was in one of the premium cabins and Twizell was right there beside him. Both were single; they would have hobnobbed.’

    I drank some coffee. ‘I feel you’re stretching things a bit.’

    ‘Not so. Almost everything I’ve said is documented.’


    ‘Just listen. Twizell’s son owned three ships. How did he acquire them?’

    ‘You tell me.’

    ‘From his father, who bought them on the proceeds of selling Daniel Abraham’s diamonds.’

    ‘A fifty-year-old man swam ashore when the waves were smashing the boat to bits?’

    ‘No. He left the ship at Bega when she offloaded a sick passenger. I believe that was Twizell.’

    ‘There was an inquiry, wasn’t there? Was this mentioned?’

    ‘Who was there to mention it?’

    ‘The survivor.’

    ‘He wasn’t asked.’

    ‘People at Bega.’

    ‘Ah, there you have it. An obscure report in a local newspaper about a sick passenger being transferred to a whaling vessel at the mouth of the bay.’

    ‘You’re drawing a very long bow.’

    ‘I’d agree with you but for one thing.’

    ‘That is?’

    ‘At one point along the line in this tale a person who was in a position to know what happened wrote it all down. No, I shouldn’t say that—is alleged to have written most of it down.’

    When someone backtracks and dilutes a story in that way it can be because they know they’re on shaky ground and don’t want to have to provide much more substance, or because they’re being honest and trying to tell it like it is. With Wakefield, it was hard to judge.

    ‘You’ve made a lot of assumptions and the documentation’s pretty flimsy,’ I said. ‘I don’t trust newspapers to do much beyond getting the date right.’

    ‘I agree with you, but in this period such things are all we have. A good deal of accepted history is built on nothing much stronger.’

    He was getting close to his chosen field of revisionary history and I didn’t want to get into that. I was sure he could out-fence me there with examples and evidence.

    ‘What exactly do you have in mind for me to do?’

    ‘Just this—talk to John Twizell in Bathurst gaol. Ask him certain questions and report back on what he says.’

    Put like that, what could I do? We signed the contract and Wakefield wrote me a cheque for a retainer that would keep the wolves from my door for the better part of a month. Generally speaking, these days I prefer a direct deposit into my working account, but with the chequebook and a silver pen in his hand I didn’t feel like objecting. He signed with a flourish and handed the cheque to me. In the old days you could arrange to have cheques cleared instantly by paying a fee. Not any more.

    ‘A question. If you’re planning to write a book about this, wouldn’t it be better for you to interview Twizell yourself? I mean, wouldn’t it add flavour? You’d be the investigator as well as the researcher. Save you money, too.’

    He shook his head. ‘Look at me, the modern, corporate, funded academic. I’d be out of my depth with someone like Twizell and likely to antagonise him. I’m assuming you know people in the ... custodial industry—prison and parole officers, lawyers and the like?’

    Custodial industry, I thought. Well, I guess that’s what it is, more or less.

    I nodded, folded the cheque and slipped it into my wallet. ‘What’s he in for?’

    Putting the chequebook and pen away he looked slightly uncomfortable. ‘Oh, didn’t I say? He’s serving a sentence for assault with a deadly weapon.’

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